Monday, November 30, 2009

Are computers making us dumber as they get smarter? Maybe it's part of the master plan . . . .

I can still remember how impressed I was with my father’s academic friends. Whatever I said to them, they always had an answer. I’d point to a ship in my book, and they’d tell me about the Bremen, the Lusitania, and the United States . . . all the great passenger liners. I’d talk about elephants and they answered with stories of Africa, Asia, Hannibal’s warriors and the Indian Maharajahs. I was so impressed with their vast knowledge.

I read books all day long, and it seemed like I didn’t know a fraction of what those grownups knew. Of course, they were thirty and I was seven, but I wasn’t old enough to take subtle points like that into account.

My grandparents didn’t know nearly as much. I’d ask my grandmother about helicopters, and she’d just say, Honey child, I don’t know a thing about helicopters! When I asked why she didn’t know, my grandfather had the answer. Those college people know a little about everything, but nothing about anything. I doubt any of them could plow a field!

I never did get the chance to see if my parents’ friends could plow fields. But as
I got older, I realized folks who could talk intelligently about many topics were pretty rare, and the ones who knew more than the most superficial tidbits were rarer still. I was just lucky to have a bunch of them in my life early on. So it was a neat thing, finding new people like that as I got older.

By the time I was eighteen, I knew a few good places to look for people who knew something about everything. The Umass Science Fiction Society, for example, was full of geeks with an overabundance of esoteric knowledge. As time passed, I found more and more pockets of arcane understanding throughout the Pioneer Valley, where I lived.

The knowledgeable people I found were always rare and special. Consequently, I grew up believing knowledge was something to be treasured. Not anymore. Any fool with a Blackberry or Iphone can look up life’s answers at the drop of a hat, provided there’s cell phone service. So where does that leave the knowledgeable geeks of yesterday? I guess what was special has become ordinary, at least on first glance.

What happened? Did the pocket Internet make everyone smarter? Or does it just facilitate snappy comebacks, with a sixty-second web browser delay? I used to think the Internet was a tide that lifted all boats, knowledge wise, but now I wonder if the opposite is true. I think the Internet and information technology in general makes us dumber, in some key ways.

When I was a kid, you had to actually memorize and know the capitals of foreign countries if you wanted to talk geography. And you never knew when that might happen. Even today, I know Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia, and Quito is the capital of Ecuador. I can point them out on a map.

So what, today’s young people say. The iphone will tell you more about Ulan Bator in sixty seconds than I could possibly remember. That’s true, but by relying on the computer, we stop training out minds, and we stop filling our memory banks. By doing so, I believe we diminish our ability to solve life’s problems unaided, and we become more and more dependent on machines. When the machines give us answers, we seem superficially smarter, but we really are dumber, because we’re not building the networks in our brains to solve a whole host of problems.

Want another example of this? Think navigation. I went my whole life looking at maps and finding my way. I have a long, long history of reaching my destinations, whether on foot, by boat, or by car. I looked at a map, related it to the world around me, and found my way. All too often, navigation today is handed off to a machine. Many motorists can’t make sense of a basic road map, or estimate the distance between two points on a printed page. They are lost if their machine loses touch with the satellites.

Most of the time, technology works as it should. People get to their destinations faster thanks to computers. But people who rely on machines have given up something vital yet intangible. They’ve lost the ability to think it through a navigation problem themselves. They have become slaves to machines out of intellectual laziness, and the laziness makes them less smart. The brain wiring that solves navigation problems allows us to solve other problems too. Computers don’t have that flexibility, and neither do we when we abdicate our thinking to machines.

I think this point is lost on many young people today. After all, if they have not developed certain processing abilities in their minds, how can they know what they are missing? I know, because I see what I lose when I rely on technology and it fails. I think of my frustration when my car gets lost, and I recall all those times when I solved my own problems and found my own way, uneventfully albeit a bit slower.

For many people, web browsing has replaced book reading. Recent studies suggest that their attention spans are reduced as a result. When we rely on a computer to look up facts, instead of our own memory, the price may not be obvious. But I believe it’s there, and it real.

It’s a point to ponder for sure. Easy answers aren’t always free.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Some fall flowers . . .

A famous writer once said, "You can lead a Horticulture, but you can't make her think." How true that is. And it makes you wonder who grows plants like these . . . .

The closer we get to winter, the more the New England countryside reverts to black-and white. It's like the saturation dial gets turned down, day by day. But you can still find spots of color. One place I look is the greenhouses at Smith College. When I was a kid the Smith girls were superior and snooty, and they sneered at the likes of me. Now, though, they admit me to their institution and are even friendly, especially when I pay to get in. These are some of the plants from their fall mum show, which runs through the 20th:

I am told they have live bees, snakes, and rats to pollinate and disseminate the plants. So you have to watch your step but it's worth it.

I am not sure how they get their mums to grow in a ball, but they do . . .

Some of the colors are quite delicate.

If you like these, there are more over on my Facebook page,

Monday, November 9, 2009

John Elder Robison - upcoming appearances

In the interest of keeping stuff together and up to date I have set up a new blog for my appearances. If you follow the Look Me in the Eye blog I'd suggest following the appearances blog too. It has one post - the calendar - which I edit whenever I add or change a date.

You can go to it directly at:

You can subscribe to the feed here:

I mirror this blog on my Facebook and elsewhere. I add events every month, and if you follow, you'll know where they are. I hope to see you on the road . . . .

Friday, November 6, 2009

What is Smart? Is intelligence like beauty, merely in the eye of the beholder?

"He's such a bright little boy!" My mother and her friends said stuff like that all the time, as they pointed to me when they thought I wasn't paying attention.

Now that I'm grown, I can let them in on a secret: There was never a time when I didn't pay attention to grownups as a kid. I watched them really close, all the time. I may not have understood everything I heard, but I surely took it all in.

But what did it mean? I got a new bike, and my mother said, "What a pretty red bicycle!" Everyone who saw it said the same thing. It was a nice, red bike. The attributes didn't change. It was always a bike, and always red. No one ever called it blue or green, because colors were absolute. Something was either red or green; it didn't change at your whim or mine.

Unfortunately, phrases like, "Bright little boy," didn't work that way. I went to school as a "bright boy" only to have bigger kids say, "You're a retard!" Grownups got in their kicks with lines like, "How can you act so stupid?"

I may not have known much in elementary school, but I knew bright, retarded, and stupid did not go together.

Something was wrong. I began watching those grownups who said I was so smart a little closer. I noticed something pretty quick: When grownups talked about kids, they were always calling them clever and smart, and the other moms always agreed. No one ever said, "John Elder is really smart, but Freddie is dumb as a rock!"

The grownups said, "John Elder is smart," and then Freddie crawled into the cage, and they also said, "Freddie is so clever and smart!" To moms, we were all cute and smart and clever. Yet I'd go to school, and lots of kids said Freddie was dumb. None of them said he was smart.

So who was right? You heard moms call kids smart, and they never called kids dumb. Yet I knew you couldn't have smart kids without having less-smart ones too. If we were all smart, we'd be the same, and there would be no such thing as smart or not.

So I learned to discount what the moms said. I did the same for most of the kids who called me a retard, because I realized they called everyone they didn't like a retard. Also, after close observation I began to doubt the mental prowess of the name callers. If they were subnormal, how could they possibly diagnose me?

After a lot of watching and thinking, I finally figured out what was happening. People said I was smart because they thought I sounded smart. Sound was the giveaway. My choice of words announced my intelligence, or so they thought.

It took a long time for me to figure that out because it didn't work that way for me; I had to deduce what was going on from observation. You see, I could never really tell who was smarter even when I knew someone pretty well. Sure, I knew who had better language skills. Me. But so what?

I have always spoken really precisely and clearly, and that gives listeners the impression that I am really smart. But that didn't make me smarter. Butch Fornier talked rough, but he was an artist with carburetors in auto shop. I could talk circles around Butch, but when it came to practical skill, he had me whupped. So I knew how deceptive fancy words could be.

Pretty is something you see. Stinky is something you smell. Smart is something you hear. That's how it works for most people. What a disappointment! I always thought "smart" was an absolute, and maybe it is on an IQ test. But in the popular perception, smart is just as much in the eye of the beholder as beauty and body odor.

People who listened to me had no way to know if I was really smart or not. They didn't say, "Quick now! Multiply 4,722 by 381. What's the answer?" They never said, "So you think you're smart . . . who's the King of Mongolia?" Those kinds of questions might have given people some real insight into my intelligence. But they never asked. They just listened to me talk, and jumped to a conclusion.

They were making a big mistake, as it turned out.

I did have really good speaking skills. That part of my brain is "smart." But there's more to being smart than the ability to talk a good game. There's also math smarts, history smarts, and smarts for everything else they teach in school. And finally, one big smarts is social smarts. That's the ability to figure out other people, and what they really mean when they say and do things. Unfortunately, I am pretty dumb in that area.

When I was twelve, I had the language skill of a college professor and the social skill of a toddler. That was a formula for disaster, and it totally explains all those people who cried out, "How can you be so smart and do such dumb things?"

Today I see how exceptional language skill can combine with poor social skill to create a terrible invisible handicap. A person whose social skills and language are poor is cut some slack, because he sounds like he needs some help. A person like me is torn to pieces because I sound so good that I'm held to an exceptionally high standard; one I often fail to meet. Quite a few of my fellow Aspergians share this predicament.

And the worst part is . . . I often don't even know when I've made a gaffe, because that social blindness is central to the whole thing.

That's something to ponder the next time a "smart kid" does something "really dumb" in your presence.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Looking through the window at holidays

Most of the time I feel like I’ve blended in to nypical society pretty well, but the holidays always come to remind me that I’ll always be an outsider in certain ways. This Halloween was no exception.

One problem with holidays is that it produces millions and millions of images, many of which by the poses and expressions serve to remind me of my own differences. I’d like to pose and smile like the people in the photos, but I can’t quite do it. Most of the time, I hardly notice how I look and carry myself relative to others, but at times like this I can’t miss it, and it kind of hurts.

Now that Halloween has passed and the parties are over, I see photos of people bunched together in groups, cheek to cheek and smiling big smiles, and I think . . . that is something I could never do. Not for lack of desire, mind you; I just don’t know how to accomplish it, or perhaps I don’t know how to get away with it without offending everyone horribly or making a fool of myself.

Here are two examples from the stream of pictures that passes my Facebook account every day. My apologies to the people depicted in these shots as I’m sure you never meant them to be used in this way . . .

How do you smile on command like the females in these shots? When people ask to take a picture of me, this is the usual result:

I felt like I behaved just fine with the photo of me and Kevin was taken. I think he was okay too. But look at the difference between me and those three females, or even between me and Kevin. Such a difference of expression, and I know I'm weak in this area so I was trying to compensate!

We all smile on command to some extent. I smiled for Kevin, but it’s barely recognizable when held up against the females. Some people smile so naturally. I thought I was smiling when my picture was taken, and indeed you can see a hint of it on my face. But I can’t do those big smiles on command, no matter how I try.

And the expressions aren’t the only thing that sets me apart. There’s also the posing. I look at photos like the one of Jackie pressed up against her friends and I ask myself, how do you know when it’s appropriate to pose like that? When, and for how long?

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a photo of myself like Jackie’s, even when I was a kid. I just don’t know how to get that close to someone else and pose. I think other people must have an instinctive sense of how to hold themselves and act; whatever it is, it’s missing in me.

What feeling is conveyed in Jackie’s pictures? Perhaps the fact that I don’t know explains why I can’t imagine being in shots like that, even though I know millions of other people posed just like her lat weekend, and had fun doing so.

Most of the time, people say I’m a serious looking guy, and that’s okay. But there seem to be times when others lighten up in appearance, and I don’t seem to have that figured out. I think I’ve learned how to fit in really well, and then I see images like these, that show how different I really am in some ways, and I know it will never change.

I’m glad I’ve at least earned the respect of many people, and my serious demeanor is acceptable 99.9% of the time. The pictures will fade, and I’ll still be here just as I always am. I don’t know where I’d be without that knowledge . . .

Still, I sometimes think I’d be happier in a world without cameras. I cringe to think this is only the beginning. We have Thanksgiving coming, then Christmas, and finally New Year’s. Two months of stress, at the worst possible time – when the days are dark and cold. I can’t wait till it’s all behind me.