In 2012, Humans Learned Our True Digital Potential

We (humans) are a species of over-analysis. The year 2012 draws to a close and collectively we come to our lists: the lessons, the take-aways, the best and the worst. It is that introspective turning point as we usher in a new year committed to our sole quest of bettering our species. At least, I hope that is everyone’s intention. Darwin’s research would suggest that we have little choice but to become more adapted.

Who are we after one more year?

While doing some research into lessons learned from 2012, I came across some recent studies concerning the concept of “illusionary superiority.” Despite being so globally connected, , an NPR piece which featuring a recent analysis of some 350,000 students at nearly 14,000 schools in 53 countries, has uncovered the prevalence of illusionary superiority in the field of science. The study, which looks at 15-year-olds across the globe, seeks to give an explanation for why students have such inflated images of their academic performance. It concludes that students in different countries have a very inflated perception of how good they actually are in science. While students in America are not the worst offenders, it seems that globally, students have a higher level of self-esteem in their scientific abilities than they actually merit when compared to students in other countries.

This finding poses an interesting challenge to who we are in 2012. Even in the age of the internet, in our over-connected, instantaneous world of free-flowing information, it still seems like we can only compare ourselves to what we experience physically around us. A student who is good in science compared to the other students in his school may not necessarily be that great compared to students in another school.

Now apply that concept to the entire globe.

While the student may not be as smart compared to a student somewhere else in the world, self esteem is the most important factor. 2012 has become the year for self-esteem. (Just look at the Romney campaign.) While the internet has not made students more realistic about their academic standing world-wide, it has brought the power to comment on the world to the masses. 2012 is the year of the self-taught expert on how to be an expert. We live in a post-apocalyptic world devoid of actual fact that died long before 12/21/12, and we are blogging in the ashes.  

The past year has given way to the instant reaction to anything. With millions of people constantly commenting on the world as we see it, we begin to see events shape a person faster than you can say, “binders full of women.” Trends and algorithms have taken a stronger hold than ever in 2012. Not only is the newest information the most important, but now we are brought news that caters to what our specific interest are.

A recent conversation in the New York Times centered on the idea of the “human cyborg.” In the conversation, various experts weighed in on the way we filter our information in 2012. In fact, even as I wrote that sentence, I immediately paused, went to Google, brought up the article again by searching “human cyborg NY Times” and boom, I was reading it again. It was as fluid as brushing my teeth. This is the way we live now.

The conversation veers in many directions, touching on the death of “old information” such as articles or stories from just a few months to many years ago that hold "no relevance" to current arguments anymore, and touching on the disconnection we face with the real, tangible world. It seems that the year 2012 has brought the internet and life in the digital age into maturity. We are no longer wondering what life will be like when computers do our thinking for us. We now know what it’s like, and we are working on what that means for our humanity.

As humans, we learn so much from the world on the internet and interact so much in that world, but we live in the tangible world around us at the same time. 2012 seems to be a beginning for co-existence. Rather than technology being an ends in itself, as it has been for so long (“Finally, when a computer can X we can…) we are learning to blend it into our lives as a means to greater ends. Instant information just means we can find more of it and use more of it than ever before, faster than ever before. We just have to make sure we learn how to process it.

In America in particular, the higher we go in our educational endeavors, the more confidence we gain in our own knowledge. A recent article in the New Yorker points to a study that shows that the higher we score on tests (SAT scores were used), coupled with getting an education from highly reputable institutions showed a rise in what the study calls “bias blind spots.” The study showed that people who were “smarter” also seemed to be more vulnerable to common mental mistakes themselves, but were quick to point out those same mistakes when made by others. The self-illusion of being smart is upheld by the belief in the institution itself producing the brightest minds, so everyone who goes there must be the brightest. Illusionary superiority in individual to individual form: What’s inside my brain will never give me an exact picture of what’s in yours. My scale is not your scale.

Perhaps this is the great lesson of 2012: No matter where we live, geographically or mentally, we are not as great as we think we are. But the paradox is that if we did not believe in our own inherent greatness we would not have achieved what we have achieved and we will never achieve what we will achieve. 2012 has been a year to come to terms with the internet's new co-existence with the human mind. . If a person has the power to start a blog, the power to post a thought, then they have the power to be noticed in a related Google search of that topic.

Humanity as a whole is always perceived to be in times of rapid changes and crisis. 2012 has been no different. But as the year draws to a close, remember that we found the Higgs-Boson this year, a particle that scientist have been saying must exist and it did. Along with Curiosity on Mars and with Voyager I 36 years into its mission leaving our solar system, this is an exciting time for science, and it is no time to lose sight of who we are as a species and what we are capable of. Stay humble, but be confident. Take the time to read and listen on and off the computer. Happy New Year.