How Technology Makes Us Stupid

Mobile phones and new technology are damaging our minds. And make us stupid. It’s not because of the radiation close to our brains (though that probably counts too, in a different way), but because it makes our brains lazy. On one hand, we advance tremendously. On the other, we’re dumber and less capable than we were millennia ago.

Decade and a half ago, I had tons of phone numbers in my head, each of them ready to pop out when needed. I never used to write down a new phone, I would just repeat it in my mind once after hearing it, and that was it. And it was not only phone numbers. I could do that with any number of decent length (I never tried to remember more than a dozen of PI decimals).

Now, I know five phone numbers. Two of them take some time recalling. Of the other three, one is my own. And there’s no chance I’d even try to add a new number to that list. There are two reasons for such drastic decrease of my capabilities. One, I’m 15 years older. And those 15 years were filled with activities that doesn’t do much good to the brain cells. The other, in those 15 years I got a mobile phone. And the bloody thing has memory and dials straight from it, so my brain actually never gets in contact with the number. Never! How many times you meet somebody and you give your number which is immediately typed into the phone and then the other person calls you just to leave you their number? You just type the name and never actually read the number. For all you care it could be 15 hexadecimal digits. You just hope to remember the name and face. Or you use the phone’s camera to take a snapshot and connect it to the entry.

It’s not only about simple things like numbers. Years ago, in the dawn of the mobile era, my friends and I could find each other in the crowd of several dozens of thousands of people on the festival grounds. No technology involved. Bit of knowing each other’s habits, bit of intuition and guessing, bit of listening to each other’s plans and we had no trouble being at the same place at the same time. Now, we don’t even try to do something like that. We just fire up the phone. And with fancy services like Google Latitude and GPS, we’ll even be spared of that effort.


image by digitalbob8

Brain is not a muscle, but it needs regular exercise to work just the same. And our regular mental exercising has been replaced by the new technology. It’s the same as when the automobiles became popular. People started to walk less. Decade or two later, rate of heart conditions and obesity increased.

Yes, technology helps us doing our day errands. But for the price of decreasing our brain capabilities. Is it a fair trade? I doubt.

As any math student knows, calculator will never be a good substitution for a working brain. Calculators do the operations much faster and more precise than the brain, but they can’t solve the problem, they only do the operations. And to solve the problem, brain needs to be capable of doing the boring parts of the job as well. Even if it will use a tool as calculator is.

I don’t want to go in the horror scenario, quite possible in a decade or so, when satellites stop working and all those billions of people can’t even find way to their home because GPS is down. The whole civilization that thinks so highly of itself and it’s technical advance, roaming around, lost in its own space. Dumb creatures trying to find a way home. But karma can be a nasty bitch.

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  • Actually I have a more positive (and hopefully not too naïve) view of this. I am always thinking/hoping that technology helps to handle mundane tasks so that we can concentrate on higher level thoughts.
    My favorite example of this is word processing. When I was in school a great deal of the work I spent on reports was the actual production. Verify the spelling. Type carefully to avoid mistakes. Leave space at the bottom of the page for footnotes.
    Now when I write I find I am much more able to concentrate on the actual content. I can get thoughts down on “paper” with a much smoother flow knowing that many of the production concerns are handled automatically and those that are not I can easily revise later. I am much more inclined to put in references now than when I knew that lots of footnotes were the bane of my writing.
    Also in my own personal case, I was never really good at much of the rote items. My memory was never great, history being my worst subject and math/science being my best. So having a machine “remember” for me has been a godsend from day one.
    What I do see at times, especially in younger people, is a tendency to use the advantages of technology to their own advantage. The child who uses a calculator in order _not_ to learn basic arithmetic operations. The college student who uses the word processor to do the same job we would have done with a typewriter, but in less time so as to allow for more TV time. This is bad, but I, again naively, beleive this is actually less than we think. People are doing more and doing better things even without realizing it.
    It’s sad that you miss having all your phone numbers right in your memory for instant recall. But think how wonderful it is that you can so easily write this great blog and reach people all over the world. And thanks for doing so!

  • Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm enjoying technology all the way. I'm just noting the side-effects. Otherwise I'd be a hypocrite for not living in a house without electricity and without internet access. 
    Let me try to clear my point on this. You said that memory is your weak point and that machine memory is godsend. And it really is, to an extent. No human brain can remember all the Wikipedia pages related to history. But having access to Wikipedia doesn't make you a historian. To effectively handle the facts you have to have them first hand, right in your brain. Then the machine memory comes as a help. Same is with math and chemistry and with everything else. 
    I do agree that technology is a great help, especially in writing and publishing (yeah, I'm scratching my own itch here :)) though I recently reverted back to pen and paper, for reasons that are for a completely different post. 
    But we, due to our natural laziness, abuse this help. We take what's meant to be complement as a replacement. 

  • Do you think?

    Okay, fifteen years ago you remembered numerous phone numbers in your head, thus you regularly activated one kind of brain function.  Fifteen years ago you did not blog every day.  You did not go through your day with a keen, observant eye to what is worth sharing and communicating with other people.  You did not formulate those thoughts into long sentences and paragraphs daily, coherent enough that people all over the world — relative strangers — could read them and give their opinions and feedback, and engage in a dialogue on subjects from technology to advertising to philosophy.  Today, you do this, thus regularly activate another kind of brain function.
    Fifteen years ago you had a different focus for your memory: rote memorization.  Today, your memory enables you to remember how to code (if you code at all, even if it's something as simple as a web page), how to optimally operate a computer, how to navigate a network.  There are many people in the world who don't understand these things, and the tech-savvy among us do.  We have learned, and we remember.  We activate that brain function every time we do it.
    Five hundred years ago, it was vitally important to be able to ride a horse.  Ask anyone who's ridden horses: this is not a skill that just anyone can stroll up and do the first time.  It takes learning.  I wouldn't say we're all stupid because we don't, as a society, know how to ride horses.  We're just focusing our brains on different things and letting technology handle the rest.

  • Well… things become to be what we make of them :) Speaking of which, I still have dozens of phone numbers written in *my own* memory, not relying completely on phone's memory… although, I let my Palm or HP remember the shopping list, because it's kind of boring, and very often I can miss something, especially having these laaaaarge malls and stores nowadays ;)
    I enjoy technology, like gadgets, am completely addicted to internet ;) still, I try to refuse becoming a dumb creature… still have an oldschool paper map in my car, next to GPS… I guess those 15 years you are talking about did the trick – considering the fact that both of us were not infants 15 years ago – I'm capable of using and interpreting both devices, since I remember the old ones pretty well – who the heck knew about, let alone have, the GPS when I first started driving? ;)

  • I think someone said the very same thing when they "invented" writing… I'm pretty sure that someone thought that we will become more stupid because we stopped memorizing myths, legends, epics and so on… No technology is bad on its own, it's how we use it that makes it so….
    You are right, 15 years ago we could find each other in a crowd without many problems, but 15 years ago I had to wait in rain, snow and other kind of lousy weather, just because the person I was waiting was late and I could not reach him/her to check what's up… And I was worrying much more…
    And yes, once again, you are right, 15 years ago I knew almost all phone numbers of my friends & family by heart (some of them I even now can recall, even if I didn't dial them for years…), but 15 years ago I was in secondary school and I wasn't working 9 or more hours a day and the input of information I had to deal was, well, approximately 30% of what it is today. 
    And there you go… In 15 years or so, I'll still expect to know more than I do now, but in order to make it so, I will have to forget something or other and I chose to forget the information that technology can provide me with… Btw, what do you think will I still remember the phone numbers of my high-school friends?

  • Found this interesting on the NY Times. Maybe some other effects of technology

    Maybe other effects we're not aware of, such as impatience with RL.

  • huh! I definitely have to rethink this one. I agree with most of your arguments, but still can't get rid of that scene of people lost because GPS is down. It all sums down to exchanging our skills. We trade old capabilities for the new ones enabled by the time we spared by using technology. Will it be a fair trade? Only the time will tell. 

  • What scares me the most about technology would be the effect that video games have on kids.  My son likes video games, but also has a good set of street smarts on him.  He can tromp around in the woods and thoroughly enjoy it.
    When my partner's son comes over to visit, I am amazed with his lack of interest in anything other than video games.  He gets bored when we go to really cool events where kids are present.  He enjoys nature in small doses.  He's been raised with no restrictions on game play times, and hasn't had a lot of socialization as he is "Home Schooled".  We're planning a 2 week camping trip with the boys where no video games are allowed. I'm sure that there will be some withdrawal, but it's something the kid will probably remember for the rest of his life. Hopefully it will release some of the addiction.

    I wonder how many kids worlds are stuck in virtual land instead of dirt, plants, frogs, snakes, butterflies, trees….etc.


  • Ok on a positive note after reading your "Let's Change the World" post…
    Technology like the www definitely has it's awesome qualities that help us grow as a people.  Some of us are no longer blindly led by the media like sheeple. We get news from the people and disregard the propaganda.  We find strength in numbers and realize that some of the ideas we have are not so crazy.
    Lol, I live in a very small rural town. ;)  Ok, I'm off to read "A Brief Guide to World Domination".

  • Alberto, thanks for the link. It's a great illustration of the post. And it also leads to another subject I want to touch, about how digital media changes the way we think (not for better or worse, but the whole system of our thinking is getting different). That's very visible with kids that grow with tech we had to adopt, so called digital natives. 

  • Su, your story reminds me of a family I met on a snowboarding trip couple of years ago. They have a son, seven or nine years old, who managed to make them bring his console to the mountains (hysterical attacks and blackmailing can really do miracles sometimes). He was desperate enough for leaving the town, but leaving his console behind would be a tragedy. At one moment a friend of mine said, if he load a game with snowboarding and skiing the sky will fall on our heads and it will be the end of the world. 
    Thing is, games give instant gratification but without the risk of the real thing. And kids will go for that cheap pleasure. Unfortunately. 

  • a very long debate, but let it be answered by time, because we can only follow the development course

  • Indeed. I was afraid of sounding luditic. But couldn't resist throwing out the idea and check how it resonates with other people. development of technology is now a wild beast, and while we still have some influence on it, it has a momentum of its own. And we are riding on its back. 

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