Does the Web make us Stupid?#
H. Maurer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Introduction#The first paper in the References argues that almost nobody finishes reading papers online. Together with Nielsen’s statements that reading carries over from screens to printed material (i.e. many of us are not reading properly but are often just “scanning” information) I am worried you will not read this paper to the end, either. Hence I better start telling you my conclusions right away: Internet and other information and communication technologies are indeed reducing many of our cherished cognitive facilities (i.e. do make us more stupid), much as our physical fitness has been reduced by all kinds of machinery for physical work and locomotion. However, here comes what appears crucial to me: this is not bad at all, as long as our reduced facilities are overcompensated by technology, provided we are not completely dependent on that technology (i.e. enough redundancy is left in case of serious break-downs).
If you stop reading here, you got the important part of the message in a rational way. If you continue reading, I hope I can drive home my message also emotionally.
Over the last 6 years or so numerous papers and books have appeared that claim that the Internet (and related technologies) are reducing our cognitive abilities. Here are a few famous examples and some quotes. In her book Brabazon writes: “Looking at schools and universities, it is difficult to pinpoint when education, teaching and learning started to hemorrhage purpose, aspiration and function. As the internet offers a glut of information, bored surfers fill their cursors and minds with irrelevancies, losing the capacity to sift, discard and judge”. Keen in his book, “The cult of the amateur” pokes fun at the “Wisdom of crowds” by Surowiecky by saying: “How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values…” and “Instead of creating masterpieces million of ‘monkeys’ are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity. They publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays and novels”. Take Bauerlein’s book “The Dumbest Generation” with the subtitle “How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30)”: the title is already a clear message. Or consider Weber’s book on “Copy and Paste Syndrome” with statements such as: “The real danger is not that plagiarism is used fraudulently for personal gain, but that the copy/paste mentality destroys thinking“. The title of Spitzer’s book “Digital Dementia: How we ruin the brains of us and our children” says it all, even if you don’t read to the point where he claims “Computer for teaching subjects like history are as important as are bicycles for teaching how to swim.”
Why so negative?#
Above authors share a number of concerns: We are so inundated by information that our attention span has become very small. We are heading (my terminology) towards a global attention deficit syndrome: we cannot be inactive any more, yet we are loosing the power to concentrate. If we are not drowned by e-mails, by SMS or tweets telling us to look at some site or YouTube clip, work on a social network, listen to mp3 music with a plug in our ear, zap through 100 TV shows, answer the phone or ring someone, we somehow MUST occupy ourselves and be it with still another Sudoku. Many waste so much time keeping their “friends” in the network happy that they have little time left for productive work. They have externalized much of their knowledge into the cloud and their smart-phones, hence do not need to remember many facts, threatening the functioning of their memory. Students do not write essays these days. Rather, using copy/paste, they glue pieces of information together, hardly understanding what they are producing; they are not able to read complicated texts any more, being spoilt by small pieces of information in tweets or in an SMS with a new language, thinking those things R-good-4U. The blind trust in e-Learning as replacing good teachers just leads to less educated children, apps are substituting thinking: cognitive capacity is shrinking.
I have said: those are some of the concerns often mentioned. Well, if they were just concerns we could brush them off. However, almost all of them are based on solid quantitative research and experiments. Hence we have to take them serious, i.e. the technologies involved do indeed make us (or most of the coming generations) more stupid, measured by the cognitive strength of brains.
All of us working in computer science have realized that the internet helps us with very good access to information, research papers and communication with colleagues. It has made many mundane tasks easier, like booking a hotel, a performance, a trip or such. Yes, it has also produced serious problems of privacy, of indirect control of others over us, of violence increased by violent games (unfortunately a fact proven by now), it possibly is creating new kinds of warfare, and yes, in a few aspects it has made us lazier.
Or maybe it has just relieved us of some tasks to have room for new challenges? Why should I do complicated calculations when my smart-phone has a nice calculator built in? Why worry about counting change if I pay by credit card, anyway? Why bother about spelling mistakes when my spell-checker makes fewer mistakes than my teachers did? Why remember phone numbers when my handy is speech or word activated? I do not mind if I cannot find my phone in my house: I use the phone of my wife and the ringing of my phone makes sure I can locate it. Too bad, my shoes still don’t ring, but soon NFC devices will help me find them, or anything else interesting to me, for that matter. Handwriting- why the heck! I am dictating these days or sometime still use the keyboard. With a language app on my phone I converse on a simple level in any language of the world… I forgot where I found the app, but I am sure you will be able to locate it soon. Even before I used my English-Japanese language app it was easy for me to order in a Japanese restaurant: they all have those plastic replicas of meals in the window, so I just took a picture with my digital camera and showed it to the waiter. Well, I find this also convenient when hiking so I don’t have to memorize details of a map. What does it matter if my sense of orientation has become worse, I find any place in my city without map, and also in your city, and even when hiking.
And now I suddenly learn that all those great achievements come at the price of increasing stupidity! What an unpleasant surprise! Does this mean that we technology guys will at some stage have to ask us the same question physicists had to ask themselves in connection with nuclear weapons: do we contribute positively to mankind or do we threaten it?
I say: no need to worry if some of our cognitive facilities are reduced due to technology, as long as independent and creative thinking is not threatened and as long we can still function in a reasonably “basic mode” if technologies fail.
We have to stop looking at humans as naturally, biological grown beings. Rather, we have to understand them as organic beings in symbiosis with technology. I myself am a good example. I am middle-ear deaf. That is, without very special hearing aids I would not hear a thing. I wear glasses or I would see everything blurred. My pacemaker keeps my heart beating properly. And the titanium plate in my hip is perfect; well, when I go through security I sometimes have to show a medical statement about that piece of metal in me. If you take away all this technology, I would be a cripple at best, but probably dead. As is, I can hike, SCUBA dive, go to concerts, do research and even make it into C.ACM once in 20 years.
Putting it differently, we must not judge persons now and in the future without the technological tools they are using, whether those tools are built-in (pace maker) or external (hearing aid, smart phone, tablet PC, Google glasses,…). We have long accepted this for physical properties: my grandfather was strong: he could carry 100 pounds for 20 kilometres in 4 hours! Well, I can do better, I can carry 500 pounds 200 kilometres in 2 hours with my car. When I meet an adversary, I still prefer Mr. Universe over a guy with a machine gun.
You think I will loose the next million Euro quiz because of my reduced cognitive ability? No, I won’t. I will just blink a few times and will see the answer to whatever question was asked in my new data-glasses.
Yes, the internet (and other IC- Technologies) will make us more stupid. But it really does not matter.
- 1. Paper on Technology in http://www.slate.com in June 2013 (no longer online)
- 2. Brabazon, T. (2007). The University of Google; Ashgate
- 3. Keen, A. (2007): The cult of the amateur. Double Day
- 4. Bauerlein, M. (2008). The dumbest generation. Paperback and available on Kindle.
- 5. Spitzer, M. (2012). Digitale Demenz. Wie wir uns und unsere Kinder um den Verstand bringen. Roemer Verlag. <Approximate English translation: Digital Dementia: How we ruin the brains of us and our children>.
- 6. Surowiecki, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor Books
- 7. Weber, St. (2006). The Copy-Paste Syndrome, Teleopolis-Heine