Have you noticed that we are getting more stupid by the day?
Technology is replacing the mundane human actions so fast that we can scarcely keep pace. Take driving – most of us have parking sensors and, having finally learnt to trust them, we now take them for granted. Try parking without them. Go on, turn them off and realise that you no longer have that immediate knack of being able to parallel park. Turn the Satnav off and try to use a map. That’s a hoot.
We have outsourced our memory for such things, safe in the knowledge that they are only a click away. “Is the internet making us stupid?” I type. Press enter. Almost instantly, a raft of answers and articles appear on screen. It’s an unsettling feeling that my first instinct – to Google my own stupidity – may be the root of my increasing stupidity.
A recent study (you’ve probably forgotten it by now) suggests 90% of us are suffering from digital amnesia. More than 70% of people don’t know their children’s phone numbers by heart, and 49% have not memorised their partner’s number. While those of us who grew up in a landline-only world may remember friends’ home numbers from that era, we are unlikely to know their current mobiles, as our phones do the job. We don’t commit data to memory because of the ‘Google Effect.’ We’re safe in he knowledge that answers are just a click away, and are happy to treat the web like an extension of our own memory.
Sit down with a pen and two A4 sheets of paper and write a letter, or a report. Take a look at your formerly beautiful, crafted handwriting that has now deteriorated into a 5-year-old’s scrawl. Ask your kids to research their homework without using a computer. I did, and now, apparently, there is one Dad for sale at a very reasonable price.
But our dependence on technology and the internet has a dark side. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.
Such mental juggling takes a big toll. In a recent experiment at Stanford University, researchers gave various cognitive tests to 49 people who do a lot of media multitasking and 52 people who multitask much less frequently. The heavy multitaskers performed poorly on all the tests. They were more easily distracted, had less control over their attention, and were much less able to distinguish important information from trivia.
The researchers were surprised by the results. They expected the intensive multitaskers to have gained some mental advantages. But that wasn’t the case. In fact, the multitaskers weren’t even good at multitasking. “Everything distracts them,” said Clifford Nass, one of the researchers.
What we seem to be sacrificing in our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion. The rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which pump out streams of brief messages, has only exacerbated the problem.
Every 50 years or so, American magazine, the Atlantic, lobs an intellectual grenade into our culture. In the summer of 1945, for example, it published an essay by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineer Vannevar Bush entitled “As We May Think.” It turned out to be the blueprint for what eventually emerged as the world-wide web. Recently, they published an essay by Nicholas Carr, one of the blogosphere’s most prominent (and thoughtful) contrarians, under the headline “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”.
“Over the past few years,” Carr wrote, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case any more. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
“Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” he wrote. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”
It’s easy to dismiss Carr’s concern as just the latest episode of the moral panic that always accompanies the arrival of a new technology. People worried about printing, photography, the telephone and television in analogous ways. It even bothered Plato, who argued that the technology of writing would destroy the art of remembering. The brains of illiterate people, for example, are structurally different from those of people who can read. So if the technology of printing – and its concomitant requirement to learn to read – could shape human brains, then surely it’s logical to assume that our addiction to networking technology will do something similar?
Our brains adapt, but the process of adaptation is value-neutral; we might get smarter or we might get dumber, we’re just adapting to the environment. There are of course great positives to such technology, but l would argue that the pace is unprecedented and therefore the historic change that humans adapted to over a decade, now needs to be done in a year or two. We are losing skills before we are done with them and the pace is too furious. Watch reality television or read the Sun.
The resulting vacuum can only be filled with stupidity.