Are computers making us dumber as they get smarter? Maybe it's part of the master plan . . . .

I can still remember how impressed I was with my father’s academic friends. Whatever I said to them, they always had an answer. I’d point to a ship in my book, and they’d tell me about the Bremen, the Lusitania, and the United States . . . all the great passenger liners. I’d talk about elephants and they answered with stories of Africa, Asia, Hannibal’s warriors and the Indian Maharajahs. I was so impressed with their vast knowledge.

I read books all day long, and it seemed like I didn’t know a fraction of what those grownups knew. Of course, they were thirty and I was seven, but I wasn’t old enough to take subtle points like that into account.

My grandparents didn’t know nearly as much. I’d ask my grandmother about helicopters, and she’d just say, Honey child, I don’t know a thing about helicopters! When I asked why she didn’t know, my grandfather had the answer. Those college people know a little about everything, but nothing about anything. I doubt any of them could plow a field!

I never did get the chance to see if my parents’ friends could plow fields. But as
I got older, I realized folks who could talk intelligently about many topics were pretty rare, and the ones who knew more than the most superficial tidbits were rarer still. I was just lucky to have a bunch of them in my life early on. So it was a neat thing, finding new people like that as I got older.

By the time I was eighteen, I knew a few good places to look for people who knew something about everything. The Umass Science Fiction Society, for example, was full of geeks with an overabundance of esoteric knowledge. As time passed, I found more and more pockets of arcane understanding throughout the Pioneer Valley, where I lived.

The knowledgeable people I found were always rare and special. Consequently, I grew up believing knowledge was something to be treasured. Not anymore. Any fool with a Blackberry or Iphone can look up life’s answers at the drop of a hat, provided there’s cell phone service. So where does that leave the knowledgeable geeks of yesterday? I guess what was special has become ordinary, at least on first glance.

What happened? Did the pocket Internet make everyone smarter? Or does it just facilitate snappy comebacks, with a sixty-second web browser delay? I used to think the Internet was a tide that lifted all boats, knowledge wise, but now I wonder if the opposite is true. I think the Internet and information technology in general makes us dumber, in some key ways.

When I was a kid, you had to actually memorize and know the capitals of foreign countries if you wanted to talk geography. And you never knew when that might happen. Even today, I know Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia, and Quito is the capital of Ecuador. I can point them out on a map.

So what, today’s young people say. The iphone will tell you more about Ulan Bator in sixty seconds than I could possibly remember. That’s true, but by relying on the computer, we stop training out minds, and we stop filling our memory banks. By doing so, I believe we diminish our ability to solve life’s problems unaided, and we become more and more dependent on machines. When the machines give us answers, we seem superficially smarter, but we really are dumber, because we’re not building the networks in our brains to solve a whole host of problems.

Want another example of this? Think navigation. I went my whole life looking at maps and finding my way. I have a long, long history of reaching my destinations, whether on foot, by boat, or by car. I looked at a map, related it to the world around me, and found my way. All too often, navigation today is handed off to a machine. Many motorists can’t make sense of a basic road map, or estimate the distance between two points on a printed page. They are lost if their machine loses touch with the satellites.

Most of the time, technology works as it should. People get to their destinations faster thanks to computers. But people who rely on machines have given up something vital yet intangible. They’ve lost the ability to think it through a navigation problem themselves. They have become slaves to machines out of intellectual laziness, and the laziness makes them less smart. The brain wiring that solves navigation problems allows us to solve other problems too. Computers don’t have that flexibility, and neither do we when we abdicate our thinking to machines.

I think this point is lost on many young people today. After all, if they have not developed certain processing abilities in their minds, how can they know what they are missing? I know, because I see what I lose when I rely on technology and it fails. I think of my frustration when my car gets lost, and I recall all those times when I solved my own problems and found my own way, uneventfully albeit a bit slower.

For many people, web browsing has replaced book reading. Recent studies suggest that their attention spans are reduced as a result. When we rely on a computer to look up facts, instead of our own memory, the price may not be obvious. But I believe it’s there, and it real.

It’s a point to ponder for sure. Easy answers aren’t always free.


Teri said…
I always enjoy your articles! This one hits home in so many ways. Not just personally (though I'm loathe to admit that in all truthfulness, I, too, have become lazy, and am now acutely aware of it as I undertake a college education with the intent of doing it *the old fashioned way*, meaning that I wish to understand how to work a problem, not just plug it into my fancy TI-89 and wait and incredibly short time for an answer).

My children, for all the "problem solving strategies" that they are taught in school seem to believe that it's more important to know how to find the information than to know and understand the information, that a quick perusal of a resource based on immediate need for the subject material is sufficient to get them through life. While they might be able to succeed in many ways with that sort of resourcefulness, they are shortchanging themselves, their peers, their future coworkers and their children by not training their own integrated processors. At this rate, the human mind may yet be overtaking by the computer in terms of processing speed for all but autonomic processes. It takes and interminably long time for them to reason their way through something sometimes. I have smart kids, too. It pains me to see them rely so heavily on extantly accessible knowledge while simultaneously letting slip the internal pathways needed to process the information comprehensively.

Thanks for all your thought provoking work on this blog!
Eric said…
John, you have said what has bothered me for years. The written word has gone by the way of Studebakers and LP records. I do love the web and the access to info that it provides; but it will never replace the love of a book, or searching an encyclopedia for the subject that you were seeking. And if you couldn't find what you needed, there were teachers, family members or friends who could guide you. The big problem is that the schools have stopped teaching. Instead, they spend their time coaching kids to pass MCAS, FCAT or whatever state test that is required for graduation. Sure, the students graduate. But ask them what country mines the greatest number of diamonds in the world (S. Africa) and they give you the look of a deer caught in your headlights in Leyden. I love my smart phone and my PC. But give me a good library any day of the week. Woof!
m said…
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Amanda said…
The question is, what happens when there's a power cut? How will all those people who don't even know how to do basic maths because they always use a calculator cope? Children don't seem to be taught how to do simultaneous equations or even long division any more. It is scary to think our future will be held in the hands of a push button generation. The effects will be far reaching.
jess said…
this is a fascinating topic, john. and i agree that we are losing so many skills because we have an easy out. i know my own attention span has suffered since my world has been reduced to little bite sized (byte sized?) portions. a distressing trend indeed.
mama edge said…
I'm reminded of the book, Player Piano,Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s first novel. Written way back in 1952, he foresaw the backlash that could come from our overdependence on technology. My two favorite quotes:

“In order to get what we’ve got, Anita, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them — the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect.”


"If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.”

So it goes...
Unknown said…
I wholeheartedly agree, John. I've seen it in myself too, the degradation of attention span and also patience, and it irks me. I still keep a collection of books based on my interests though. Why? Because no amount of Internet surfing beats the feel of paper beneath your fingers or the smell of the ink. I see the Internet as a fun passtime but it doesn't beat old-fashioned research!
SamD said…
Excellent and thought-provoking essay! Like you I've noticed the drift from "I know..." to "I can find out..." and have wondered where it will eventually lead.
Paulene Angela said…
What a coincidence with this post. Last week I e-mailed my cousin in Australia asking him if either his mother Yolanda or great aunt used email, apologizing for my lazy manner of avoiding pen/paper and stamps.

His answer was ..... “not only do they not use computers, but they refuse to use mobile phones!”

Great aunt is 84 years and still plays the organ in Church every Sunday. My auntie Yolanda is a true glowing version of a walking encyclopedia.

Conclusion “why are we in such a hurry?” and “who is controlling who?”
Perhaps it’s time to step off the carousel!

Superb Post John
Anonymous said…
I couldn't agree more. I'm sure that one day the line between machine and human will get pretty thin. When they figure out how to make machinery out of organic matter. How to grow a machine essentially. I'm sure it's on the horizon. Then what? What will happen to the human being then?

I think our value system is all out of whack. We use our heads, or now computers, to chart our course through life and through interactions with others. But it's our hearts that should be leading the way. That is what differentiates us.

We are not thinking machines. We're loving beings. Essentially. Whether you still actually use your own brain or you log on to get your answers. The bottom line is the head should not be ruling the heart. If we got back to what's real, what's the most important, the intellect, whether it's machine or organic, would take a back seat to what is in our hearts. Then communication would be extraordinary and of the sort that NO machine could possibly compete with. Unless of course they come up with one that learns how to love.
Descartes said…
I love technology-I was one of the first in my class to get a calculator and use it whenever I could. I am addicted to Google and Wiki and IMDB-I can now find the answers to all those annoying little questions that niggle the back of my mind.

Am I less intelligent because I have mastered the art of the Google query rather reaching for a dusty copy of the Britannica?

There was a great short story on the Twilight Zone where everyone had an implant that allowed them instant access to all information-great stuff until the power goes out.

I still read a lot of good old fashion paper and ink books, I still go to museums and look at real art, I still travel and still use maps to find my way. But digital info is so way cool.

What are the odd the two of us would have run across each other in the real world?

This is a great topic and you have given me a lot to think about.
cath c said…
excellent point. the real dumbing down of the world. there are a great many sci-fi books and stories on this very topic that go back to the age of the first calculators.

i think your grandfather's statement is right on target, even if i tend toward the kind of person who can talk a lot about a little. but i can do practical things, too.
smauge said…
I think computers make us smarter. Having any information at our fingertips when our curiosity is piqued, instead of trying to find a book with the rquired information, and maybe giving up before you find it is definately a positive thing. Especially for the likes of my 7yo Aspie and his isatiable appetite for knowledge!
Garriond said…
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Garriond said…
I agree that there is the danger of using Google as excuse to only have shallow knowledge. Many things can be looked up, but without a solid fundament of understanding we might not know what to google for. If there is no framework to integrate new information into, that information becomes dead trivia and is quickly forgotten.

However, I think this short-attention-span, I-just-need-to-know-where-to-find-the-info generation is a temporary phenomenon inherent in the transition to a more enhanced cognition of humanity. People used to concentrate their thinking on fewer areas because there simply was less information available. On the other hand, not concentrating on any area and not going into the depth of anything at all is an overreaction to the quickly changing society.

True value comes from diving deep into something. Technology exposes us to more knowledge and therefore allows us to find better places to dive deep into. It also provides us with tools to dive more efficiently.

If we get more value from life, I have no problem if that is because we use technology more. Some say technology makes us dumber, but there is little point in comparing the non-technologically encanced smartness of a 2009 internet surfer to that of a 1900 farmer; a lot of the surfer’s total smartness and skills have to do with interfacing with technology, being part of a global knowledge and cognition flow that would not have been possible a hundred years ago. I see it a bit like going from single cells to multi-cellular organisms: we lose some abilities that were important for life as single, isolated cells, but we are better off as parts of the whole body.

I am optimistic about our future. Technology offers the promise of a much better life; we just have to learn how to use it.
Michelle S. said…
This is a wonderful post and gives us, your lucky readers, something to think about. I think we are all much more impatient because of the instant gratification we receive everywhere now. I am a fool with a Blackberry, but I also think we all need to slow down a bit, perhaps by enjoying things like you gorgeous flowers you photographed. Thanks for writing.
Kate said…
The intelligent people are still going to be intelligent. The less than intelligent people will now have a superficial level of intelligence. You can still find the book learned people who go to college and learn things same as as before. Just gotta weed em out better. A true mark of a conversation is what someone knows without Googling it. Good conversations are stioll there to be had.
as one of the 'young people' i have to say that you've hit the nail on the head. i don't like to feel so reliant on technology but nowadays we're expected to get things done faster and more often than not i turn to the internet for bits and pieces of knowledge. that said, i believe there are still many people out there like myself who would prefer to read a reference text as opposed togoogling, and would rather read a map than listening to those annoying electronic directions from the gps.

great post!
DJ Kirkby said…
Good post. I think your grandfather and you both made a good point.
Anonymous said…
Yes, its true that we memorise less because of the internet but the internet also alows access to information we would not of had in the past. When my children ask me a question I do not know the answer we just look it up. As the info is usualy very in depth we end up having to work on understanding new concepts.Just yesterday we looked up how a Nautilus traps gas in its shell. We ended up learning more about Osmosis (not how it traps gas never found that answer) and energy created from the process.

So yes we memories less but we work more on understanding complex concepts because of the internet.

Hey are you still feeling the effects of the TMS or have they gone away. Is your anxiety still lower? Can you look people in the eye more still? Please answer.
John Robison said…
Veronica, I believe the TMS experiments have had long lasting and profound effects on me. I will write a post on them shortly
Anonymous said…
Thank You for your response. Look forward to your blog on the lasting effects of TMS
Jack Hutchinson said…
As we experience the revolution in information access of the internet, search engines and computing/communications bandwidth, we're also living in a world of accelerating innovation and specialization. I think it all works together with remarkable power.

It is tempting to decry change as loss - we don't teach much Latin or Greek any more, but 50 years ago classical languages were seen as a cornerstone in the foundation of a good education and any movement away from them was viewed by the establishment in similar terms.

I'm a 60+ year old teaching 20 year olds and find the freedom from rote and memorization in modern education both challenging and exhilerating. The curriculum of the internet age is more demanding than the one I experienced - locating, evaluating, understanding and integrating information and concepts and learning to use that knowledge to create value for others.

Our grandfathers could learn their trades from their fathers - or even from their grandfathers. Often we can't even understand the work our kids do - and our grandkids?

Then I am a pretty dedicated optimist - so maybe I'm all wet here -

John - I love your posts, love your site and community. Thanks for all you do for our Aspergian community.

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