Around a year and a half ago my Pre-AP English class was assigned a culminating project. This graduation requirement consisted of a 2500 word paper as well as a short presentation. We were prompted to choose a point of contention in the modern world, pose it as a question, gather arguments from debates and other sources, and format it as an essay to convince the reader of a certain position.
I chose, “is technology making us stupider?”
Moore’s Law of the Mind: How Technology is Changing the Way We Think for the Better
In 1965, a computer scientist named Gordon E. Moore wrote that the number of items on a computer circuit would double every year for the next ten, effectively doubling the speed of the computer every 18 months. This principle was called Moore’s Law. He was astoundingly accurate—in fact, his law not only predicted the growth of technology for the ten years after his research paper was written, but for the next 45 as well. Of course, with computers that go faster and faster, come minds that can keep up with them. Not only are we able to process information more quickly than generations ago, but we also have unprecedented access to more information than ever before. However, some critics have recently been speaking out against technology and the Internet, and they pose the question, “Is technology making us smarter or stupider?” Technology is not making the human race stupider– in fact, it is making us much more intelligent, both emotionally and logically. We do rely on technology more–that there is no arguing about–but contrary to the pessimist’s opinion, this is not a bad thing.
Some studies claim to show that technology, particularly the Internet and social networking, is causing the most radical shift in thinking in human history. This is a point that cannot be contested, however some writers and journalists are speaking out because they believe that this is a negative shift. Nicholas Carr, a writer for The Atlantic, is clearly opposed to the way that technology is affecting his brain. He pessimistically states that something “has been tinkering with [his] brain, remapping neural circuitry,” and that his concentration is now shifting while reading (Carr). His article, titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, focuses on his personal experience with the Internet’s brain-melting abilities. He claims that his mind, once able to read entire novels without distraction, is now unable to focus for extended periods of time. Constant distractions, such as email and texting, are the key suspect. Carr quotes Bruce Friedman, a writer, saying “I can’t read War and Peace anymore, I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it” (Carr). A simple search turns up numerous websites with the full text of War and Peace, yet they are littered with advertisements– local coupons, ridiculous savings, and collectible toy soldiers. The same goes for The Atlantic– the article, “Is Google Making Us Stupider?” is available with no hassles online, but it is filled with ads for The Atlantic’s iPad application. Instead of digging through a pile of magazines to find the August 2008 issue in which this article appeared, one can simply sit down at his or her desk and click. Technology takes the burden of going to the bookstore away, but instead replaces it with a web of distraction.
It’s obvious why these two writers believe that technology is making us stupider: we can’t focus on one thing anymore. We are shifting from one window to the next, from email to the web, from Facebook to Twitter, and from our laptops to our phones. Simply put, we are being overloaded with information. Advertisements, banners, popups, “related articles”– they all point to different, sometimes entirely unrelated pages. Hyperlinks take us from one point to another in the infinite web, and all that information is only a click away. Never before have we been able to jump around so quickly. Nicholas Carr argues that this ability to hop from page to page quickly is bad, but he is simply adapted to a world filled with epic poems and long novels. Our world no longer measures intelligence based on whether you can read, but on our agility and problem solving skills. When one must be able to diagnose a problem with a computer, or even another living creature, it does not matter if you can read War and Peace. However, you must be able to quickly identify the problem and figure out a solution with a high rate of accuracy.
This evolution in speed is also prevalent in the classroom. Recently in one of my classrooms, there was a feud between a student and teacher regarding the existence of centripetal force and its effect on the size of planets. It took the student several minutes to find his physics book, look for the page, and produce an answer. This same information can be found in a minuscule amount of time on the Internet. It took 0.12 seconds for a search engine to find a website with the relevant information– and that was even when the word was misspelled. When corrected, it took the servers under half the time to process the query: 0.05 seconds. After the search results are displayed, one click opens the website. Skimming the Wikipedia article produces the exact same answer in under a minute.
However, not everyone believes the Internet is detrimental to our thinking. To directly combat the August 2008 article in The Atlantic, Carl Zimmer wrote a piece titled “How Google is Making us Smarter.” He cites several studies in which scientists studied how a monkey’s brain reacted to new tools. In this particular experiment a chimpanzee was given a rake. After a while, the chimpanzee’s brain behaved differently– it now responded to the stimuli at the end of the rake and not in the monkey’s hand. This is similar to our reliance on technology: instead of a rake, we have Wikipedia. We have learned to use this Internet tool to work in our environment and react accordingly. GPS is another perfect example– it helps our natural path finding skills and it extends them beyond natural capabilities.
The Internet is synonymous with technology. Arguably, it is one of the most important advancements in all of human history. In an Intelligence Squared Asia debate held in the Hong Kong Convention Center, a battle took place between Thomas Crampton and Jeremy O’Grady (both prominent Internet bloggers), versus Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) and Kaiser Kuo with the latter group arguing against the notion that “the Internet is making us stupid.” Thomas Crampton spoke first and argued that humans have progressed from the era of survival, to the era of books, and now we have reached the era of distractions. In addition, he argues that only books, not video games or movies, create a strong tie between oneself and the characters within. This is entirely untrue– all three mediums create a link between the character and the individual interacting with the piece, just at different levels and in different ways. Whether it be watching, playing, or reading, there is always a potential to bond with the characters, and in fact even stronger bonds may be created with multiple ties.
Kaiser Kuo combatted Crampton’s cynical views with a more positive one—while he acknowledged distractions in our lives, he points out the incredible new interactions between humans. New technologies are emerging that allow us to interact across the globe. Everything from Google Documents Collaboration, which provides the ability for 50 people to edit the same document at the same time, to group video chatting, increases our ability to interact with new people. What once was a slow volley of letters back and forth across the ocean is now a real-time chat with business partners in Japan. He also makes a very important point: “intelligence” today is much different from that of the past. He says that the “ability to rapidly assimilate and contextualize inputs of information” and the ability to rapidly decide whether information is worth reading or not is important in the age of technology (O’Grady). All of these distractions may affect you negatively at first, but ultimately the advertisements train humans to pick and choose from a pile of mostly-useless information. “Distraction is something rather new to us,” Kuo says. “It is a cognitive skill set we are still in the process of developing” (O’Grady). The new generation of technology “natives,” those born directly into the world of computers, is the first to experience this new challenge. Kuo jokingly calls the debate audience, a room full of adults, “digital immigrants” in this new world. One of the main issues with the research today is that it is performed on adults who have lived half of their lives reading books and watching simplistic TV shows as opposed to growing up interacting with the digital sphere.
In Everything Bad is Good For You, author Steven Johnson specifically focuses on the evolution of TV. He describes TV as a medium with multiple threads, or individual story lines. For example, in the TV show 24, there are a multitude of different and concurrent threads ranging from a terrorist bomb plot to the relationships between characters. However, things weren’t always this complex– Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) and Dragnet (1951-1959) had very linear plot lines to cater to the average intelligence of the time. These shows had one narrative, and one narrative only– no side stories, no complex relationships, and very few plot twists. Hill Street Blues is an example provided by Johnson for one of the first multithreaded TV shows. In fact, he states that the 1980 pilot episode of Hill Street actually caused viewers to complain due to the multithreaded nature. Yet today these show pales in comparison to modern TV or mind-bending movies such as Inception. Over the years, TV, movies, and games have trained our minds to handle increasingly complex narratives. “We no longer clamor for simplicity, we want to be surprised, confused, and thrilled with the most complex stories we can get—we just need more.”
Back in the Intelligence Squared debate, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, argued against the statement “the Internet is making us stupid.” He said that the developing world, which is gaining access to the Internet for the first time, and the “digital immigrants” are both becoming smarter due to the Internet. The new wealth of knowledge that increases their understanding of the world is extremely beneficial to their culture. Wales used a modern context in this debate: “what would this discussion look like at Wikipedia?” he asked. On the Wikipedia Discussion pages, Wale said that you would see a community of “very thoughtful debate, discussion, dissection,” asking questions that go beyond the surface of the main subject of the article. He claims that they are “trying to understand the world in new ways,” and that this is something that you see across the entire Internet, not just on Wikipedia. This new era of discussion and dissection greatly contrasts the history of Wikipedia’s content. Teachers stereotypically denounce Wikipedia for its “inaccurate content,” however this is often not true anymore. While Wikipedia’s initial articles were filled with bias and inaccurate information, it has become an astounding new source of knowledge. Information is now crowd sourced, and checked by hundreds, if not thousands of eyes.
Wales also used the Flynn Effect to demonstrate an increase in intelligence globally. Jokingly, he said, “you should look up the article on Wikipedia, it’s a great article.” An IQ test is based on the average intelligence of the world. At any one time, the average IQ for the current test is 100 and there is a standard deviation of 15 points. However, James R. Flynn discovered that when participants took an older test, their IQ was measured to be above 100 points consistently. In other words, we are getting smarter—about 3 points per decade, according to Wales (O’Grady). He attributes this change to the changing culture: TV, radio, the Internet—all helping us understand more complex subjects and interact with each other in new ways. In addition, Wales acknowledges an interesting phenomena with a test used to predict Alzheimer’s. These tests, administered to those around 70 years old, predict Alzheimer’s in individuals by testing basic functions, recognition, and skills. However, recently these tests have become invalid– the 70-year-olds of today are consistently outperforming those that took the test 30 years ago. They are getting smarter, and the tests are losing their validity due to the huge margin (O’Grady). The demographic of people who use computers, and even books, is expanding to older age groups, and because of the increased complexity of plot lines and functionality of technology, humans are becoming smarter, and are able to understand more, quicker.
After the debate, William Wong participated in the Q&A session by asking the question, “What kind of intelligence are we talking about? Intellectual capacity, or emotional intelligence?” (O’Grady) By emotional intelligence, Wong is referring to the capacity for humans to connect and interact. As stated earlier, the ability for the Internet to connect is amazing. During the debate, Wales also spoke of a town in the Dominican Republic, which lacked electricity three years prior to his visit. However, a computer lab was recently erected and the people of the town were beginning to use it for the first time. They were discovering YouTube, email, social networking sites– all things that they didn’t had access to only a few years ago. This town, isolated by poverty, is now able to participate in a global discussion.
Intelligence and the word “smart” mean much more than simple book smarts. The word smart not only encompasses the ability to retain knowledge, but mental alertness and resourcefulness. Mental alertness is especially important when browsing the Internet– the human brain is actively scanning bits of information to find the most useful piece. Resourcefulness also comes into play here. We are also busy running through potential sources in our minds, debating whether to trust a news article or to ignore it. This is true in classrooms, for example, when teachers ask their students to search through the databases provided by the school versus someone’s inaccurate GeoCities page. Intelligence is the ability to comprehend, understand, and profit from experience, according to Princeton. Intelligence is obviously applicable to technology and the Internet as read more and more. Long before the Internet, news was consumed through a paper rolled up in your driveway. Now humans are able to browse through a virtually infinite mountain of articles, journals, and blogs.
Ultimately, the Internet and technology are new frontiers that are constantly expanding. Though filled with distractions, the World Wide Web is a training ground that teaches the mind to navigate through the unrelated and find the important. To say that technology is making us “stupid” is absurd– it is untrue, and the statement generalized. When authors claim that the Internet is making “us” stupid they rely on personal experiences, and often they are not well adapted to the changing medium. These “digital immigrants” claim that they can no longer read War and Peace cover to cover, but times are changing. No longer is intelligence measured by your ability to read a 1000 page book, but by your interactions with the digital world around you and your capacity to share and explore the World Wide Web.
PDF and Sources
This entire essay, along with the Works Cited, is available in PDF form as well.
Dedicated to my Pre-AP English teacher, who unfortunately passed away this last winter.