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As a child, you memorized your friend’s phone numbers; now you just add them to your phone. You used to memorize directions; now you just use your GPS. Are humans becoming stupid?

It depends what you mean. You could argue we’re becoming less good at memorizing things, including phone numbers and directions. But does that mean we’re less intelligent?

Not necessarily. Intelligence is more than rote memorization, of course. But is not using our brains to memorize things making us less intelligent, due to lack of practice? And are the many distractions the digital world offers keeping us from learning new things, or thinking deeply?

It might be an impossible question to answer, but many have tried, Let’s take a look at just a few of the prominent thoughts out there.

Is SMS-Speak Ruining Language?

You knew how to spell when you were younger, but seriously: kids these days with their SMS texting, twitters and whathaveyou will never learn how to write a proper letter.

Except, they will. Think about it: teenagers who SMS all day are engaging in written communication, constantly – meaning that they are practising how to use the written word so that they are properly understood. High school social dynamics being what they are, clear communication is pretty important.

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See the rest at XKCD.com

So before you blame SMS-speak for a decline in grammatical skills, think about this: a 2010 study showed that heavy use of SMS acronyms is “positively associated with word reading, vocabulary, and phonological awareness measures.”

SMS speak may not be recognizable to an outsider, but it’s made up of consistent patterns and rules. Being able to navigate this world gives anyone an advantage when it comes to learning how to communicate – similar to how learning to speak French can help you with your English grammar.

Of course, this is hardly a settled question – we’ll be researching this for years to come. But it’s a good reminder that there’s multiple ways to look at any question – including the ways that technology is affecting our intelligence.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

You could argue one important part of intelligence is contemplation – the ability to absorb big ideas and work out what they mean. Writer Nicholas Carr famously asked whether the Internet is making us stupid back in 2008. Even today, it’s an article worth reading – contemplating whether constantly consuming surface bits of information online is affecting our ability to think deeply.

google-stupid

Carr begins by saying how he feels the Internet has affected him:

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.

He continues: “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr is careful not to overreach, pointing to historic examples of people making similar predictions – Socrates decrying the written word, for example. But the central thesis, that constantly skimming short articles instead of reading longer ones is affecting our ability to think deeply, is worth contemplating.

This Isn’t The First Time

Of course, not everyone agrees with Carr’s assertion. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote a New York Times op-ed in which he argued that there’s no evidence technology is making us stupid:

New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.

printing-press-stupid

That’s right: people argued the printing press was making us stupid, the same way people argue smartphones are now. New technologies always prompt strong reactions Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web The Internet makes censorship impossible and will bring down corrupt regimes around the world. It will lead to an era of absolute transparency, which will inevitably lead to more equality and more justice. Disagree? Try... Read More , and humanity becoming stupid because of technological progress is usually one of those arguments.

Pinker argues that, if anything, humanity is progressing faster now than ever before. The output of scientific research is accelerating, for example. Part of what makes this possible is access to information.

“Knowledge is increasing exponentially,” he says. “Human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias.”

Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

Of course, access to all this information may be distracting – particularly if you have a bad information diet Eating Only Dessert: Why Your Information Diet Is Probably Terrible [Feature] Eating Only Dessert: Why Your Information Diet Is Probably Terrible [Feature] Email. Social networks. Blogs. Online video. People today consume more information than ever before, and typically only consume the things they really, really like. Clay Johnson compares this to a bad diet. "If you only... Read More . But Pinker argues this isn’t a new thing – and that there are solutions.

The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

We’ve Been Getting Smarter

Radio, TV, Internet…the sources of distraction have been increasing for the past 100 years. Is there data that suggests this made us stupid? To the contrary, say proponents of The Flynn Effect. Named for James Flynn, a moral philosopher, The Flynn Effect refers to an increase in intelligence over the past 100 years.

Flynn explored how IQ tests have become more difficult over time. His findings point to a consistent increase in intelligence throughout the 20th century.

We don’t just get a few more questions right on IQ tests, we get far more questions right on IQ tests that each succeeding generation – back to the time that they were invented.

How pronounced is this difference? Flynn says that the average person today would be considered “gifted” by the standards of 100 years ago, while the average person from then would be considered mentally challenged today. The big difference, he argues, is the ability to think abstractly.

“We’ve gone from people who confronted a concrete world, and analyzed that world primarily in terms of how much it would benefit them, to people who confront a very complex world,” he says. “It’s a world where we’ve had to develop new mental habits, new habits of mind.”

Part of this pattern is the democratization of information: widespread education and access to information means anyone who wants to learn can. This wasn’t necessarily the case 100 years ago.

“The aristocracy [in the late 1800’s] was convinced that the average person couldn’t make it, that they could never share their mindset, or their cognitive abilities,” Flynn concludes in his recent TED talk, embedded above.

Of course, the massive amount of information processed by the average Internet user is leading to all sorts of new mental habits.

Noam Chomsky: People Are Reading Less

Whatever you think of Noam Chomsky – and people have said a lot – the following video is worth watching. In it, Chomsky wrestles with the effect the Internet is having on our minds.

He uses the letters he recieves as a reference point – they’re becoming shorter.

“A lot of the letters that are coming in…are one sentence long,” he explains. “Most of the time it’s something that came to somebody’s mind while they were walking down the street. If they thought about it for two minutes, they wouldn’t have sent it.”

He also says many people stop responding when Chomsky suggests people read a book in response to a query – suggesting they find this to be too much work.

The idea that you might want to read something…that’s too much. You can’t do that.

Like many other thinkers, Chomsky admits the Internet offers a lot of advantages – he simply laments what he perceives as a loss.

“It’s true of everything,” he concludes. “You could say the same thing about the printing press.”

Is Google Knowledge?

If you’ve read this far, I’m amazed – people are reading less these days, so you must really care about this subject. As a reward, I’ve saved one of my favourite videos about this question for last: PBS Idea Channel’s excellent “Is Google Knowledge?”.

Now, wanting to know and knowing happen at roughly the same time. Sort of like how your brain works.

Mike Rugnetta’s conclusion, that Googling something is for all practical purposes the same as knowing something, probably won’t be accepted by most people for a long time. But I’m curious: do you think we’ll eventually get to the point that it is? Let’s discuss this, and the many ideas outlined above, in the comments below. I’m looking forward to it.

  1. Candice Azoury
    August 22, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    I agree with Citiguy USA--our language and spelling has gone to hell---the only reason some people support the coarse language structure modern technology presents, is because they are too lazy or intelligent to become more disciplined to go to a book store and study a complicated topic. Also, they might be too stupid and lazy to go to an accredited university and seek the discipline to aim higher. Yes, all our language, and educational structures have gone to hell.

  2. CityguyUSA
    September 22, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    Sentence structure, word usage and spelling have all gone to hell. As the calculator has made a cashier unable to count change the creation of spell check and grammar check have somehow taught many to never check. If nothing is flagged than nothing is in error thinking. Some spelling is so bad as to leave the sentence(s) unreadable. Some of this may be the result of lazy people with small keyboards.

    Initially I was going to suggest that maybe we've made too much about sentence structure and spelling and that in the end as long as you're able to communicate that is all the is needed especially considering the language crossovers from whatever language to English. Although most foreigners are very conscience of their syntax and spelling where the reverse isn't even remotely true.

    The communication issue seems much bigger than the knowledge vs information debate.

  3. CityguyUSA
    September 22, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Knowledge is...the "know how" to resolve or answer a problem or question. In other words I don't need to know the answer but I need to know how to find the answer. Knowledge put into use is how learning occurs.

    While as an employer I might want to hire someone that appears to have a vast array of knowledge already in their command...ideally the best candidate is the person that can find a solution and is not limited to memorized knowledge.

    • Andy
      September 23, 2014 at 4:07 pm

      There are better and lesser solutions. The best candidate is the one who can discard the lesser solutions, rather than using the found solution. Time is wasted by people who have to find solutions. Any student can find solutions, the master knows which ones are less efficient. Many people are capable of fixing things, fewer fix them well.

  4. Chris
    September 22, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    I think it's sad how often technology is blamed for the shortcomings of people. The only difference now is the connectivity. Idiots do stupid things and others gawk at them idiotically, nothing new here except the audience is bigger. There also have always been anti-social people and there always will be. Before they would read books or simply ignore you when forced to be in groups and now they play around with their phones. If it makes them feel better, then I'm okay with it because taking away their distraction won't make them any more comfortable speaking to me.

    I also think it is worthwhile to look at the positive effects of technology. People who genuinely want to enrich their minds with information can often do so, even when the "equivalent" books fail to be affordable, concise, practical, available in your language, or even existent. I don't hate books, I just don't think that they are always the most practical way to go about obtaining desired info.

    Furthermore, I don't apologize for not wanting to read a textbook when I want to know about advanced programming, number theory, or cryptography. I go to the internet rather than purchase a textbook (for an awful price) which may or may not contain the information I want, and will certainly contain a lot of information that I already know or consider irrelevant. Technology offers much for those who want it. Pokemon Blue taught me how to read when I was a child, YouTube taught me Calculus II and III, and the internet taught me cryptography. It's true that I don't read as many books as I used to, but I would argue that I spend a considerably larger amount of my time reading, and that the information I read is just as, if not more relevant to what I want to know.

    There is nothing unintelligent about cutting away the fat from your information diet and I would argue that this is, in a large part what the shortened communication offered by technology does (if you maintain your diet). A handful of internet articles or a 20 minute YouTube video can give you everything you hoped to get out of a full sized book. It's essence over ceremony, which is a very big concept in programming, but also applies to communication in general. You defog your intentions by only including what is essential to understanding of the idea. Einstein himself supported this viewpoint: "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction."

    With regards to text-speak, I have to concede to both sides. It is both good and bad. For the people who are correctly abbreviating and using acronyms in a clear consistent manner, this is excellent practicing in consolidating your thoughts down to the essentials. However, there are plenty of people that not only text illegibly but do so very frequently and it actually instills those habits to the point that they have no formal writing skills. In short, you perform the way you practice.

  5. Deborah H
    September 22, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Is there an answer on Google for "how anyone can talk so fast"? Of course Google is knowledge. I love to read books but don't have much time.
    If I need a quick answer, guess what. Google has it. By the way, I'm a cat person.

  6. Martin Pierce
    September 21, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Of course it is. Maybe not in Technology, but, in other areas the answer is Yes, Yes, Yes. How many people can still change a wheel on their car?. Start a fire if your Freezing, find or collect water to survive on. Just grab your cell phone and someone will show up to help you out. Get Real. If its a critical senario, your just plain Screwed. Can you make a Splint for a broken bone, find shelter, survive a fire, find your way out of a Forest (Which way is North, South, East, or West. Can they read a map even if they had one--I don't think so. Its a Good Time to learn self-reliance.

  7. Captain Ludd
    September 20, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    What about social skills and EQ (emotional quotient)? You look at the sad, downright disturbing scene of a restaurant table where millennials are seated and none of them are talking to one another. They're "talking" to external people on their iPhone or playing games while they wait for their drinks and food. Families don't sit down to the dinner table and talk to one another. Parents don't even call down to the bedroom or outside to the backyard play area (gee, remember when kids did that?); they just text message their kids to say dinner's ready (or just grab them a McDonald's and let them eat by themselves). I think social media is destroying human empathy and the natural ability to communicate face-to-face. I almost think it's a conspiracy by the semi-autistic computer geeks who've basically invented this stuff, to make their odd behavior and inability to maintain eye contact the "norm" rather than an undesirable trait. Call it cultural autism or what have you, but it's creating a monster out of society. And I say this as a millennial myself who has never in my lifetime signed up for a social media account or used a "smart" phone -- and NEVER WILL.

    Besides that, it's enabling the already existing sociopaths to have a platform that they never did before. The trolls on 4chan and the twisted freaks who sent Robin Williams' daughter those disgusting pictures of gruesome suicides, would probably have been relegated to a veritable leper colony years back and never heard from again. Now, thanks to the "democratization" of communication, any idiot with a keyboard can harass someone that they never would have been able to contact in real life, and largely without repercussion due to the anonymity factor and the Western obsession with "freedom of speech." This goes beyond twirling one's finger around and prank-calling a random number in the phone book, breathing heavy into the receiver on the line with someone who neither expected nor wanted the call. The fact that everyone is constantly available 24/7 leaves people vulnerable to vicious attacks by scumbags who get a rise out of hurting other people. All in all, I think social media is simply an unnatural state of human interaction. We were not meant to "talk" via keyboard, nor were we meant to tolerate the gloating sadists who turn tragedy into a running gag. This so-called achievement may be considered a great thing for society, but in the long run it will be a major factor in the decline of "civilization."

  8. Chris
    September 20, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Good article. I read a book The Shallows that deals with neuroplasticity and how the internet is changing our brain much like the books did. It's a good book and worth the read.

  9. Dann A
    September 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    I'm really glad you wrote this article, Justin. This is something I've had a number of discussions about; especially the "text speak" issue. Being a linguist, I've heard a number of people talk about how people are able to easily switch back and forth between types of communication (that actually figures in my girlfriend's dissertation, actually) when they need to.

    As for the rest of it, I found it really interesting, and I love the Flynn stuff. And while I'm not much of a fan of Steven Pinker, I like his idea of the "collective intellectual output." In a way, it feels like the entire human race is becoming part of a single mind that's built in the internet.
    Scary.

    Anyway, great article, and lots of food for thought here!

  10. Enes I
    September 20, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Yes !

  11. Zeon
    September 20, 2014 at 4:13 am

    We are indeed getting smarter. That is how we were able to invent these new technologies in the first place.

  12. Bull D
    September 20, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Your brain is your brain, its how well you use it that determines how "Smart" you are, not how much you know, or how much education you have or havent had, but how well you think.

  13. dragonmouth
    September 20, 2014 at 1:55 am

    "Intelligence" is what we are born with and is absolute. We can't gain or lose it unless there is a traumatic injury to the brain. "Smarts" is what we learn throughout life.

    We have access to more data but technology is cauisng us to lose our basic skills. We may know how to use complex tools and machinery but we have forgotten how to fix an electrical cord, start a fire or raise our food. Without technology we are helpless.

    • Captain Ludd
      September 20, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      Consider, though, what in fact we're accessing using those tools. As a majority (note, a majority is not the whole), we're not engaging in civilized discourse or looking up manuals on how to use those complex tools and machinery or fix an electrical cord. We're bullying one another, often to the point of suicide, over abject stupidity like what sporting league you root for or what political candidate or party you support. We're also ogling celebrities and "reality television" personalities of no real talent or cultural consequence, to find out when they took their latest bowel movement or what brand of undergarments they buy.

      As an example: I personally had not even heard of Kenny West until some idiot I know in real life decided to fill me in on all the details of his affair with the vapid, brainless, evidently nymphomaniacal daughter of O.J. Simpson's late defense attorney, that resulted with an out-of-wedlock birth for the pair. I thought he was a newly-created country in the Balkans or a country musician or something. Apparently he is some sort of spoken-word poet or R&B singer with an (un)healthy egotism comparable to that of his paramour; again, the details of their relationship or day-to-day habits are of absolutely no consequence to my life. I have not accessed any information regarding these individuals about whom I have absolutely no interest; needless to say, I do not use Tweetface or Spacebook, or whatever these idiotic tabloid forums are called, that provide constant updates about celebrities' misadventures and sexual proclivities, as well as those of everyday nobodies who (for whatever reason) aspire to be in the same league as Kim and Kenny (or whatever their names are). However, because of this, I and others like me tend to be in the minority, and are often socially ostracized as "snobs" or Luddites or people without a clue.

      It is a sad state of affairs that someone, or a group of someones, came up with this "Worldwide Web" of information available at anyone's fingertips, a veritable Library of Alexandria for the 21st century, and look at what we do with it. Bully children to the point of suicide and follow the daily flatulence habits of superficial "friends" and media-savvy narcissists who contribute absolutely nothing of real merit to the human race. Something tells me that it's not so much that humans are *becoming* dumber as a result of these new technologies. We're already a bunch of idiots, and the Internet is just exposing us for what we truly are.

  14. Jessica C
    September 19, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    The idea tbat we think or know things outside of our own brains is often called "distributed cognition" http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socially_distributed_cognition

    Eg. That you may write down a phone number in an address book, and instead file away the knowledge that the contact you need is there, and you know how to look it up.

  15. Nat
    September 19, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Anyone remember Isaac Asimov's 1958 story, "The Feeling of Power?" 50 years ahead of his time....

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