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.
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.
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.
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, 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. 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.
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