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No, technology is not making you dumber

One thing that really makes me flip is these all too common tropes on how technology is making you dumber.  With all the accusations flying around (the Internet, Google, Wikipedia, iPhones, etc.) you’d think that we would have all been reduced to drooling morons by now.

I really hate this mindset.  Someone please explain to me how remembering someone’s phone number makes you smarter?  Or remembering exactly where every Safeway is in the greater Phoenix area?  Or attempting to deduce the weather conditions with my eyeballs?

This is garbage.  If anything, technology is making us amazingly smarter, by freeing up our brain capacity to focus on other things, specifically those that robots are not good at.  You know, like actually learning, and applying information, rather than wasting brain cells on remembering a catalog of 10 digit numbers.

To take this a little further, do you think people were similarly lamenting to Gutenberg in the 15th century, because people no longer needed to remember epic poems in their entirety?  This sounds really stupid, right?  That’s because it is.

Google, the Internet, and iPhones have made human beings smarter, more efficient, and significantly more productive.  The only piece of technology that may have made people dumber is television, the defining technological element of baby boomers, who, ironically, are usually the authors of this alarmist bullshit.

Stop it.

11 comments
  1. choof says: May 12, 20101:58 pm

    I can’t stand this argument either, and I agree that it’s only making us more efficient. A baby boomer may not rely on a GPS device to drive across the country, but they also wouldn’t be able to see traffic jams & road work 100 miles ahead of time and re-adjust their path accordingly. Stop hatin’ on us because we embrace technological progress.

  2. chad says: May 12, 20105:02 pm

    I think the point is not so much a dumbing down, but an overindulgence in technology. It’s an unhealthy relationship with a good thing. With technology at your finger tips, you’ll solve a problem with an immediate reaction for your phone instead of your personal memory.

    That being said, I don’t think dumbing down is the correct way of putting it. It is more along the lines of deactivating parts of the brain that a computer can do for you.

    There is something to be said about not paying attention to the world around you because your eyes are fixed to a computer screen.

    Ultimately, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

  3. fil says: May 12, 20107:39 pm

    I agree with Chad on this one. I am too busy listening to the Penguins right now, but We definitely are tipping the scales towards having an unhealthy relationship with a good thing.

    I will respond in more detail later.

  4. BLin says: May 12, 20108:46 pm

    The thing is, I think you guys are confusing nostalgia with what’s “sad” or “unhealthy.” If you told someone from the 15th century that you couldn’t navigate through a forest without getting lost, they would laugh at you and call you stupid, or talk about your “unhealthy” relationship with roads.

    Skillsets change over time. We happen to be experiencing a rapid technological shift ocurring in a short period of time, which can make things a little shocking, but I don’t think it’s “unhealthy” for me to always want to Wikipedia something when it comes up in conversation.

  5. colin says: May 13, 201011:11 am

    I fully agree with you Brian.

  6. beej says: May 13, 201011:14 am

    Every generation thinks the next generation is dumber/lazier/corrupt. They lament the new technologies and how they will destroy society and how the world simply won’t get along.

    Taking your point further, printed books were actually vilified. In all seriousness they were seen as a totally corrupting influence. Don Quixote was written as a satire poking fun at the alarmists saying that easy, portable books were going to destroy people’s minds.

  7. brad says: May 13, 20101:29 pm

    BLin, I like that you differentiate “nostalgia” from “sad/unhealthy”, although I’d probably put myself into the nostalgic group. I don’t dislike technology at all, but I think being able to navigate through a forest on your own is a cool and worthwhile skill. I want to put a few things out there:

    1) I think that technology probably doesn’t make you dumber. However, I’m not convinced that it actually makes you smarter (but see the Flynn Effect), although it definitely makes you more efficient.

    2) I think technology may negatively affect people in at least three respects:
    a) Social Intelligence
    b) Grammar and Spelling
    c) Memory
    d) Increased Multitasking (the worst effect, imo)

    Social Intelligence: here, I mean “a person’s competence to comprehend his or her environment optimally and react appropriately for socially successful conduct”. EX: Holding a conversation with a person who owns a smartphone can be (but is not always) more difficult and annoying than holding a conversation with the same person sans smartphone.

    Grammar and Spelling: I thought this argument was sure-fire, but then I read about “Txtng: the Gr8 Db8″ and now I’m not sure.

    Memory: I haven’t done much research, but it seems to me that memory is a “use it or lose it” skill. It can be improved and sharpened with practice. I feel that relying on technology may allow short term memory to go dull. It’s no problem it you can put your grocery list into your smartphone, but it becomes a problem when you can’t remember why you went into the living room.

    Increased Multitasking: Technology increases our neccesity to multitask — which is something the human brain is not very good at. Technology makes people more accessible and more easily entertained, which are not bad things. However, these things require more brain processing than we have evolved to provide. Increased multitasking decreases productivity and increases the liklihood of making a mistake. Maybe the loss to productivity can be compensated by increased efficiency, but I have no idea. The good thing about this is that it’s manageable with self control; either that, or more technology.

  8. brad says: May 13, 20101:39 pm

    Come to think of it, if it’s true that technology decreases social intelligence, it seems that must result from multitasking. So, I only really have two arguments in (2): memory and multitasking.

  9. beej says: May 13, 20101:45 pm

    I don’t have any numbers on memory, but when thinking about the concepts of memory, learning, and technology I view this as a good thing. We should be focusing less on your ability to memorize facts and more on the concepts and use of knowledge.

    You don’t need to memorize formulas any more, just when to use them. With so much knowledge in the world and easily accessible we should spend way less time with the old mindless ways of “educating” people.

    Multitasking is an important way of being efficient. You’re right that people suck at it, which is exactly why technology is good. It helps fill in the gaps where we would normally fail. Sometimes setting everything aside and focusing on one thing is important, but you can’t blame technology in general for making bad decisions about one’s work habits. If you shouldn’t be watching hulu and writing a report at the same time that’s your own fault.

  10. BLin says: May 13, 20102:05 pm

    @brad
    I understand your argument about memory, and it may end up being a concern, but I’m not really sure that there’s something demonstrable that will come of it. there is huge potential for knock-on effects in either direction that I think would make some excellent research projects. For example, does no longer remembering phone numbers increase available brain power for other brain functions, or other more important memory functions?

    As for multi-tasking, I feel that this is an adaptation problem. This can be most easily demonstrated by observing a 50 year old when his/her cell phone rings. This is a genuine emergency for them. MUST. ANSWER. PHONE. This is because back in the day, if you didn’t answer, you didn’t know who it was or what they wanted.

    Someone our age knows better (or should) and sees who it is, decides if they need to answer, and if not, they don’t. I don’t answer my phone in line at the store; I’ll just call them back in 5 minutes in my car.

    As we adapt to more appropriate usage profiles of technology, social norms will be upheld.

    It is true that humans are extraordinarily bad at multi-tasking from an efficiency standpoint, but, again, this is something that has always existed and is merely being epxposed by advanced opportunities to do so much shit at once, which when you think about it, is really awesome. What is needed is better discipline, as beej points out, which is difficult, but over time will happen.

  11. BLin says: May 13, 20102:09 pm

    btw, I’m glad you retracted your spelling/grammar concern, because I think our generation reads and writes WAY more because of the internet.

    We’re all writing right now…

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