Outline of Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter

The Atlantic published Jamais Cascio’s Get Smarter in the July/August 2009 issue. It’s the first good response to Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? published a year before. I outlined it using Roland Paris’s C.L.E.A.R. model.

UPDATE: I asked Jamais for comments on the outline below on 10/3/09. I wanted it to reflect his intentions. He was kind enough to reply at length, and I’ve updated it accordingly.


What are the main claims or arguments in the text?  What is the author’s main point?

  • We humans calculate short-term risks well, but we calculate subtle, complex risks poorly
  • We must consciously increase our intelligence to survive the existential crises facing our species (e.g. peak oil, pandemics, global warming)
  • We can consciously increase our intelligence (i.e. sophisticated foresight, detailed analysis/insight, “augmented awareness”)
  • Technology (e.g. genetic engineering, artificial intelligence) will bring significant risks in the next few decades
  • We have already augmented our minds (e.g. written language, printing press, radio, telegraph, caffeine, nicotine)
  • Information overload strengthens our minds. It increases our “fluid intelligence” and increases our ability to see patterns
  • Cyborgs are not far in the future – they are already here (i.e. we use our technology as a mental prosthetic)
  • There will be a “pharmacological arms race” as people use Provigil, Ritalin, Aderall and other neuroceuticals for a competitive edge


How does the author reach these conclusions?  What are the steps in the author’s reasoning or logic?  Is this logic sound?

  1. Our species is threatened existentially (e.g. peak oil, pandemics, global warming)
  2. We were threatened existentially in the past (e.g. radical climate changes in the past 2 million years), and we evolved to meet those challenges (i.e. by developing sophisticated language and the ability to plan)
  3. Therefore, we can evolve to meet our current existential threats


Does the author rely on hidden assumptions?  If so, are these assumptions correct?

  • Evolution can be conscious
  • We know what ‘intelligence’ is (i.e. sophisticated foresight, detailed analysis/insight, pattern recognition, etc.)
  • The benefits of modifying neurochemistry and genetics outweigh the risks
  • We are threatened existentially
  • Intelligence is why we survived past threats
  • The internet is “exo-cortical technology” (aka a mental prosthetic)


What evidence does the author present to support the argument(s)?  Does the author offer enough evidence?  Is this evidence convincing?  Can you think of any counter-evidence that would challenge the author’s claims?

  • Neuro-enhancing pharmaceuticals (e.g. many professionals are taking Provigil to stay alert and some students use Ritalin and Aderall to study)
  • The “hive mind” of the internet
  • Information visualization spawning new scientific domains

Alternative Arguments

Can you think of alternative arguments that the author has not considered?

  • The Internet is not a “hive mind.” See Jaron Lanier’s criticism of this idea in his article The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.
  • We do not know what intelligence is so we could never increase it consciously. See Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.
  • Cascio does not address human fallibility sufficiently. Tinkering with such fundamentals as genetics and the brain is likely to cause large, unpredictable problems. UPDATE: Jamais responded to points like this, “Print has restrictions on content that are quite frustrating for digital writers. For example, I was limited to 5000 words initially, but was asked to pull that back to 4,500 words by the time the piece was finished. There’s quite a bit that goes missing in that context; when wondering why I didn’t mention topic X, a reader needs to ask herself/himself what existing content should be removed to make enough room to give topic X its due (and to integrate it into the rest of the piece).”
  • Cascio’s view of evolution could be construed as Lamarkian. See Lamark’s example of a giraffe. That is, he thinks an individual can consciously alter evolution. The modern Darwinian synthesis states evolution is without direction, and individuals can not force their evolution. UPDATE: Jamais responded to this point specifically, “I’d push back a bit on the characterization of my views on evolution as Lamarkian. The phrasing suggests that I’m rejecting the Darwinian synthesis; the reality is that modern humans, due to our technosocial development, are in the unique state of being able to actively change our characteristics, and are not solely subject to random mutations and environmental changes. Moreover, much of what I talk about in the piece could be considered social-technological coevolution, where our tools evolve along with us. That’s essentially memetic evolution (as in Dawkins‘ construction of memes).”
  • Conceiving of the internet as “exo-cortical” technology is incorrectly reductionist. The brain and mind are not mechanistic like the internet. See “Problems with (biological) reductionism” in the free, online Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Also see thinkers like anti-reductionists like Jaron Lanier and James P. Carse (especially his book Finite and Infinite Games).
  • Even if individuals could freely direct their evolution, Cascio doesn’t give adequate historical context for the idea: UPDATE: Jamais responded to this point above. The Atlantic imposed a 4,500 word limit.
  • (1) Many authors in the Western canon (e.g. Hobbes, Adam Smith, Hayek, etc.) think systems (e.g. law, institutions, subconscious body language, the market, traditional morality, and all traditions in general) contain more “intelligence” than even a genius could possess. For example Isaac Newton said he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” This is how writers with a “constrained” view of human nature see knowledge, according to Thomas Sowell in his book A Conflict of Visions. On the other hand, authors with an “unconstrained” vision (e.g. Gilbreath, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, etc.) think the opposite – brilliant individuals have a lot of “intelligence” and are justified in altering traditions significantly. People with a constrained vision of human nature do not think any individual, council or generation has, as Cascio puts it, the, “capacity to understand the complex relationships of the world’s systems.” This view is the practical, non-religious origin of the cliche, “we shouldn’t play God.”
  • (2) Humans taking radical control of their evolution is not a new idea. Taking such conscious control of evolution requires making specific decisions. These decisions require valuing certain genetic structures (as in the case of genetic engineering) or brain states (as in the case of nootropics like Provigil). Our species has a history of thinking too simply in this regard. As examples see religious persecutions, the politics of ‘insanity’, the eugenics movement and a myriad of genocides. In Straw Dogs John Gray writes, “This Nazi project was dealt with by Arthur Koestler in his wartime novel Arrival and Departure. Koestler gives one of its characters, a philosophizing Nazi of a kind that really existed in many parts of Europe at that time, a speech giving full vent to Nazi aims:
  • ‘We have embarked on something – something grandiose and gigantic beyond imagination. There are no more impossibilities for man now. For the first time we are attacking the biological structure of the race. We have started to breed a new species of homo sapiens. We have practically finished the task of exterminating or sterilising the gipsies in Europe; the liquidation of the Jews will be completed in a year or two. Personally I am fond of gipsy music and a clever Jew amuses me in a way; but we had to get rid of the nomadic gene, with its asocial and anarchic components, in the human chromosome…. We are the first to make use of the hypodermic syringe, the lancet and the sterilizing apparatus in our revolution.”
  • This murderous vision was not confined to Nazis.” Gray writes. “In less virulent forms, the same view of human possibilities was held in the thirties by much of the progressive intelligentsia. There were some who found positive features even in national socialism. For George Bernard Shaw, Nazi Germany was not a reactionary dictatorship but a legitimate heir to the European Enlightenment.” (93-94) UPDATE: Jamais wanted to be clear he wasn’t talking about eugenics in his Atlantic article. He wrote, “If anything, I’m arguing for *more* diversity, not a purification/ordering of the species (as in eugenics) or anything worse.” I still include (2) above not to accuse Cascio of sympathizing with eugenics but to remind the reader of one simple fact: the destructive energies in humanity look for the slightest intellectual justification. This may just result in faster, more cannibalistic economic competition or it may cause a modern genocide to eclipse all genocides. In my opinion the transhuman community has not yet shown adequate awareness of the ease with which our tinkering could let loose unimaginable ferocity.

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