Are we getting dumber as our technology gets smarter?

Well, are we getting dumber?

Do you ever wonder if we’re all getting stupider? I mean, is that even a word? Is that evidence that we are? We all depend so much on the internet, and Google in particular, that we’re losing something. Maybe we’re losing the ability to think, or at least to think creatively. The question has to be asked: are we getting dumber?

Most people don’t know their own children’s phone numbers by heart, something that would never have happened even just a few years ago. We know they’re in our phone’s memory and that’s close enough! We depend on our gadgets so much it’s a bit frightening.

Reminds me of a sci-fi short story I read a long time ago, I’m pretty sure it was one by Isaac Asimov. A generational space ship suddenly developed computer trouble, causing them to stray from their normal trajectory, and the crew realised pretty quickly that they had no idea how to calculate things without the computer. I mean, it was a complete mystery to them. A young boy, who’d been reading some old books-on-disc and had been messing around with some old technology he’d read about approached the captain and tentatively offered his advice.

Lost in space

On a generational spaceship, we would need to remember the old technologies. Are we getting dumber?

On a generational spaceship, we would need to remember (or re-learn) the old technologies

He tried to explain mathematics to the captain, who at first thought the boy was gabbling about some sort of black magic, and then came to realise that he may have actually had something. After a while, and after some patient explanations by the boy, some crew members learned some basic mathematics and started to work on the problem of getting back on course.

It was a fascinating story, like all of Asimov’s, and as is often the case, it foreshadowed the future. We’re actually in that future now! We can’t do the things we were able to do even ten years ago. Children aren’t being taught the times tables anymore (at least as far as I’m aware, but I may be out of date with my information). Worse still, no-one seems to see this as a bad thing. Children take calculators (and for all I know, laptops) with them into exam rooms. It seems ridiculous to me, but to younger people no doubt my views seem archaic and ridiculous.

Contrasting views on the question, are we getting dumber

Dr Maria Wimber, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, thinks the internet is changing the way we deal with information, but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s making us smarter at finding the right answers, she explains, and says that finding answers through internet searches actually indicates that we’re using our intelligence, though not in exactly the way we used to.

Again, it reminds me of something from years ago. I recall reading about Henry Ford, and his appearance in court. I can’t remember exactly why he was in court, but it may have been because his firm had come up with a revolutionary design (for the V6 engine, I think it was) and there was probably some idea that he’d plagiarised the design.

… but I know a man who can

The prosecuting counsel tried to make him look small by asking him several detailed and technical questions, to which Ford didn’t know the answers. The counsel thought he had him on the ropes and went in for the kill, asking how was it that he knew so little about this revolutionary new engine when he was supposed to have come up with it himself (he or his team). Ford explained he could answer all the questions the lawyer asked if he gave him just a little time. He said all he had to do was consult the right men in his team.

The point he was making was that he didn’t have to know very much about the engine, he had a team of engineers and designers to take care of all that. And if they came back after several weeks and told him they’d failed and it couldn’t be done, he’d just send them away and tell them to keep working on it. He’d already done that several times, and that’s how they’d cracked the problem of the V6.

Henry Ford - he answered the question, are we getting dumber. No, we're getting smarter in our questions!

Henry Ford – he didn’t need to know everything, but he always knew someone how knew what was needed

It was their job, as he patiently explained, to get over the technical ‘bumps in the road’, no matter how difficult, and no matter how long it took, and his job to guide and oversee them. He simply didn’t need to know the details! His intelligence, his genius, you might say, was in getting the right people to do the work in the right way. And it seems to have been quite successful, considering the number of Fords that you can still see on the roads practically a century later.

Outsourcing our brain work

A study at Fairfield University in 2003 found that taking photographs effectively reduced our ability to remember. It was found that people who toured a museum taking photos as they went were less likely to remember the items they’d seen. They had farmed out the task of remembering to the camera, in effect.

Is this then making us more stupid? Not according to anthropologist Dr Genevieve Bell, a vice-president at Intel. She says technology “helps us live smarter”, since it makes us form intelligently constructed questions and queries. Referring to the problems and questions that present themselves to computer users, she says “These are all questions that technology may be able to address quicker than calling your own parents [referring to a particular question about bringing up a baby] … this isn’t making consumers more dumb, instead it’s helping them to think smarter.”

She’s more concerned with how we feel about technology. She reckons we feel threatened by the advance of new technology that seems in a rush to overtake us in the intelligence stakes, and she sees that as understandable.

The internet is changing the way we think

Nicholas Carr, on the other hand, thinks we should indeed be alarmed. He has written about the way the internet is changing the way we think and he points out that we think in a quite different way to a computer’s ‘brain’. “… it’s through  remembering that we make connections with what we know, what we feel, and this gives rise to personal knowledge,” he says. “If we’re not forming rich connections in our own minds, we’re not creating knowledge. Science tells us memory consolidation involves attentiveness: it’s in this process that you form these connections.”

Don't use the phone in the toilet. It's a sign that the answer's yes to Are we getting dumber

Using the phone constantly? Take a break! Ask yourself, are we getting dumber? Then put your phone away!

He thinks that the combination of the ‘Google effect’ and the ubiquitousness of smart phones is a cause for concern, and points out that a Microsoft study found that the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds in 2000 to only 8 seconds today. Wow! Now that is a troubling fact. Certainly one to take into account when you ask yourself, are we getting dumber.

He thinks that rich, deep thinking is important not just for the individual but for a strong, healthy society, and with today’s technology that is a commodity that’s becoming rarer all the time. He points out how our brains are different from a computer’s:  “It’s not as if remembering and thinking are separate processes. The more things you remember, the more material you have to work on, the more interesting your thoughts are likely to be,” he says.

Andrew Keen, author of The Internet is Not the Answer, says facts are less important these days, since computers can take care of all that kind of thing (which brings to mind the famous quote attributed to Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge” … more here). The more structured thinking is more important, and there is noticeably less of it today than formerly. We needn’t worry too much about teaching facts, he says, but should instead be teaching creative thinking. The question is, he says, how do you teach children to think in this way?

I would have thought that was a basic question for a teacher. If you just shove facts at a student you end up with an exam passing student who, quite possibly, is of low intelligence, by any real standards.

We need to teach how to think, rather than just facts

Dr Wimber advises that we should spend more time away from the computer.

“We know from memory research that we only remember information we pay attention to,” she says. “If we spend all our time online, or experiencing our lives through a smartphone camera lens, we might miss important experiences, and not commit them to long-term memory. Constantly looking up information online is not an effective way to create permanent memories. The best way to make information stick is to sometimes sit back, and mentally refresh what you learnt or experienced a minute, an hour or a day ago.”

So maybe we are in danger of dumbing down. The answer though is not too difficult to find. We need more time offline, and actually thinking, instead of just searching Google and the other search engines for the answers. We need to have the confidence to use our own intelligence and not depend so much on the intelligence of computer chips.

The fact is, when the chips are down it’s our own native intelligence that will count for more than a CPU and the contents of a hard drive. Or at least we can hope so …

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