Intelligence 4.0: Searching like squirrels?

Squirrel Photo credit: Vincent Van Zalinge / Unsplash

Google’s algorithms have revolutionised what it means to search for things, making mountains of information available to us in seconds. The development of the human skill of searching has been a long process in the making though.

Dirk Baecker

How good squirrels’ memories are is a matter of some debate among scientists. For a long time, it was thought that they had to be particularly good at memorising where they’d hidden their nuts in summer and autumn, so they could eat them in winter. Then it was discovered that, in winter, squirrels simply search anywhere they think something might be hidden. You don’t need a good memory for that. It is sufficient to combine random behaviour with a degree of knowledge about your own territory. Not only that, but squirrels will often dig up their nuts and bury them again. Are they checking the quality of their nuts to make sure they haven’t gone mouldy? Are they trying to fool their competitors? Are they trying to train their memories?

This takes us to the heart of the matter. Searching is a cultural technique. It is a genetic trait to a certain degree, but it can also be learned and trained. But what is this technique all about? What is being cultivated? Do you rely on your memory of places that anyway look, smell and feel different in the winter than in the summer? Do you rely on chance, which you can practice by repeating behaviours as little as possible? Or do you just keep walking the same routes in the hope that you will eventually find what you’ve hidden? And, if so, how do you find out where others may have hidden things and make sure your hiding spots are more likely to remain undiscovered?

In squirrel research, there seems to be consensus that you can hide as much as you can in as many places as possible and that you should remain vigilant all winter long. It also keeps you warm and confuses your competitors.

If this is true, then squirrels have cultivated diligence, restlessness and randomness. Their technique consists of maximizing the chance of finding something again, not by relying on their own memory, but by modifying their environment to suit their search behaviour. The rest is a question of genetics and observing and imitating their peers.
Google search on a phone "Googling" has become synonymous with searching online | Photo Credit: Solen Feyissa / Unsplash The ingenious twist of the PageRank algorithm, invented for Google by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, is that it only searches where others have already found what they seek. The algorithm ranks more than a trillion internet sites according to the number of links referring back to each page. When searching for something, you’re not shown all the places where something about the topic you’re looking for can be found, instead you’ll get a list of sites arranged according to which have been the most attractive for other internet users. If you want, you can dive into the long tail, where searches show the sites that are less attractive. You won’t find factually verified answers to your questions. Instead, you'll find answers that other users found useful, for whatever reason, and you can only hope that their usefulness had something to do with their factual correctness.

You could write your own cultural history of searching. And, in doing so, you’d gravitate toward questions that have something to do with intelligence. Because intelligence, as Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon recognised, determines the search space in which there is a probability of finding a solution. Determining search spaces does not happen by itself, it is a cultural invention. Tell me how you search and I’ll tell you who you are. In other words, show me how a society searches and I will tell you what kind of society it is. Everything else stems from whether or not a society, or a person, is able to learn from its own method of searching. Can you have experiences with your own search that force you to change the search criteria, change the search space and ask new questions, or not? This depends, you might say, on the change from intelligence, the movement in defined search spaces, to intelligence, reflection and variation of the search space. Street lamp in Japan Searching just in the light cast by a street lamp won't get you very far | Photo Credit: Ian Valerio / Unsplash Searching and finding do not just happen by themselves. I need to know what I’m looking for. And once I’ve found it, I need to know if it’s what I’ve been looking for. And I need to know where I’m looking. Everyone knows the joke about the drunk who’s looking for his keys under the glow of a street lamp, because that is the only place where there is enough light to see. But even when you are sober, you only look in places where you can find something. So it’s worthwhile understanding searching as a cultural technique and, as Mary Douglas does, ask questions about the bias that searching has depending on the culture it occurs in. This bias defines what is meant by searching and finding, and accordingly restricts what it can mean. Tell me how you search and I’ll tell you what culture you live in.

Google’s PageRank would be the first indication of what form searching takes in the digital age. If you follow a trend that has been prevalent in cultural studies since Marshall McLuhan and divide human history into four media periods, the digital age, as the age of electronic media, is the fourth of these periods. Google Search is Search 4.0. It is worth taking a brief look at the earlier ages, because searching used to be done differently, intelligence was perceived differently and this gives us a different view of the present.
The first period in history that McLuhan describes is the tribal age. It had to deal with the shock of the occurrence of speech. Its culture is a culture of differentiating and of restricting what can be said and heard. It looks for secrets that need to be kept, thus regulating what should be talked about and what should be kept silent. This is the only way to prevent everyone talking to anyone about everything all the time. Society couldn’t handle that. Under these conditions, there is a ban on searching. Don’t look for what’s none of your business. But this also means that everyone keeps their eyes peeled at all times. You look for deviations, so they can quickly be morally sanctioned. Search 1.0 is the search for secrets to be kept. Intelligence 1.0 is monitoring the boundaries that have to be respected and kept flexible, because things can change, not least the sensitivities of everyone involved.
The second media age is the literary age or antiquity’s advanced civilization. It had to deal with the shock of the invention of writing. The time horizons of society were shifting. Tribal society was living in a more immediate, present time against the background of the eternal return of the same. Writing created the time horizons of a past in which there was writing, a future which one writes about, and a present in which one must come to terms with what is written. It creates an awareness of history and, with it, a restlessness that is absorbed both teleologically and cosmologically. One begins to look for what it means to have a history under these conditions and stumble upon fate, which is both: a story in itself, but in a cosmic framework. You may not challenge the gods, but keep on doing just that. Search 2.0 is the search for one’s own history, which is a history of inevitable entanglement. Intelligence 2.0 is the expansion of the teleological and cosmological search space through scientific knowledge and philosophical reflection.
But curiosity is still a kind of blasphemy. You don’t mess with God’s handiwork, you admire His creation. This all changes in the modern print age. The introduction and establishment of letterpress printing lead to society becoming literate. Everyone reads and everyone writes. The person becomes the focus of a humanistic worldview. By reading and writing, he has enlightened himself and others. It is also referred to as the age of criticism. Politics and economics, law and religion, science and education, art and family become dynamic forms of critical self-examination. One looks for the reason of the whole and does not find it. Search 3.0 is the maddening mind, which nevertheless believes it can organise all facts rationally, having been trained by the library catalogues of this world. Intelligence 3.0 casts doubt on that.
After all, in the course of all these efforts, a number of key techniques now complement the cultural technique of searching. We keep lists and tables. We have indexes and tables of content. Books are given page numbers that, thanks to standardised letterpress printing, are also useful because they can be quoted and revisited. We have created catalogues, lexicons and encyclopaedias. There are scholars, experts in searching and finding. You no longer merely revere the texts, you can compare them. Recent texts revise older texts. There is progress - and, at the same time, a decadence as its detachment from the dignity of the source grows.
Man searching in a library Searching in a library is slower than online, but at times more rewarding. | Photo Credit: Gunnar Ridderstrom / Unsplash Against this backdrop of modern achievements, the digital age of the introduction and assertion of electronic media seems to be a continuation of the same, but with better resources. Finally, you can do without hierarchical orders and connect everything to everyone. References can be accessed and discarded again at the speed of light. If it doesn’t put itself in order now, it never will. Google makes it possible. Encyclopaedias have now been replaced by Wikipedia, which anyone may write an article for. And because you can search for anything, you can find anything. A #squirrelsearch hashtag is enough to generate and retrieve lists, with the help of like-minded people, which link topics, activities, addresses and places across the globe and can be condensed into campaigns, political movements and debates in no time at all.

In fact, for a while it was thought that the digital age would open up a culture with no downside. The modern Enlightenment had been shown its dialectic, which plays into the hands of capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism and speciesism because the mind is desperately and vainly preoccupied with itself, while objective science and destructive technologies subjugate the world, and now the digital age promises the ultimate dawn of democracy, where every voice can be heard, every perspective is visible and every idea can be made productive. Paradoxically, the need to search no longer exists. Everything is already available. It is enough to merely retrieve it. He who searches, is a Romantic.

But that’s not how it ends. You quickly learn to recognise the flip side of the digital age. Some produce the data, others evaluate it. Now the search has been given a new face. Google helps with this, but it must also be possible to bypass Google. The dream of complete digitisation becomes the nightmare of surveillance. Your own searches feed the data kraken. You are always found.

Search 4.0 will become a search for that which cannot be registered, logged or ranked. In a society of seemingly comprehensive predictability, the unpredictable has acquired a cult value. The access of the Enlightenment, the escape from Romanticism, the trust in reason, the racing of the mind all begin to lose their rigidity. Modernity is turning paler. According to Donna Haraway, humism is replacing humanism. We are discovering the deep interweaving of human life into material, organic and technical conditions and distrusting all previous attempts to create order here. The cuts that, for too long, we have been used to making are too brutal.

Search 4.0 is no longer the search for secrets to keep, for a fate to be challenged or for a mind that drives itself mad. It is the search for the conditions under which humanity prevents itself from understanding its own situation. This question is not entirely new. Karl Marx asked about the social, Charles Darwin about the evolutionary and Sigmund Freud about the unconscious conditions that stand in the way of our search. But with the emergence of machines of increasing artificial intelligence in the digital age, the pressure to address the problems becomes even greater. Should we give up, as James Lovelock recommends in his book on the Novocene, in which machines take over from incompetent humans to prevent the globe from overheating. Or should we dedicate ourselves with Donna Haraway to the Chthulucene, in which humanity accepts the task of recreating lost refuges in which nature can recover from our interventions?

In fact, we have long been in the post-digital age. It is no longer just about digitisation, it is about adapting digital data processing to the analogue conditions that people find on earth and shaping them amongst themselves. If we once thought that machines would open up a new dimension of complex data processing, we have since discovered that machines only deal with complexity, albeit a considerable complexity that again overtaxes the human mind. For now, machines are bound to a binary if/then calculation mode. They were only able to become so fast because their Boolean logic was extended to include a third, “don’t care” value. And quantum computers are also beginning to work with third values of entanglement and superposition. But true complexity can only be found in the analogue world. You can find it where body, consciousness, technology and society enter into symbioses in which they depend on each other without submitting to each other. True complexity is the complexity of the unavailable, but presupposed and concurrent. This is where you will find Intelligence 4.0.
It’s a bit like the squirrels. We hid the nuts. And we’re just figuring out where to look for them.

This essay was first published (in German) on the Kultur/Reflexion Blog from the University of Witten/Herdecke and is available there with full footnotes. Learn more about Dirk Baecker's views on the future of creative AI here.