Michael Wells
by Michael Wells
Mon Oct 12th 2009 at 6:29pm UTC

Are Computers Making Us Stupid?

When I went grocery shopping last week, “sunflowers” were on my list, but with details. I was looking for non-variegated yellow petals and black centers (my wife has a much better artistic sense than I do, so I sometimes get these kinds of instructions). When I got there nothing exactly matched the description so I whipped out my iPhone, took a picture of the sunflowers they had, emailed it home, and called my wife. She said those were fine so I picked them up and, feeling very pleased with myself for my new-media savvy, turned around to find that someone had walked off with the cart that had my shopping list in it. While I was focused on the e-world, the real world had gone ahead without me.

This reminded me of a recent cab ride. We were at the airport and got in a taxi. I told the driver the address and what route to take – a well-known shortcut I had learned years ago when I drove a cab. He was flustered and angry because he didn’t know where I was talking about going – he usually just entered an address into his onboard computer, which gave him a route with instructions. He didn’t actually know where he was. I realized that this isn’t unusual, many cabbies don’t learn their city anymore because they don’t have to. Another disconnect from reality.

As with Wendy’s recent post about Blackberries in meetings, it looks like the ubiquitous electronic virtual reality is disconnecting us from the world we live in. From people walking down the street listening to earphones, to drivers talking on cell phones, more and more we’re not in touch with what’s happening right around us. We’re dependent on Google or Wikipedia for information, or GPS for directions, or e-mail and texting for communicating with people in the same building.

What does this mean for our ability to live and work in the real world? Are we losing the ability to find our way and work out solutions on our own? Are computers making us stupid?

17 Responses to “Are Computers Making Us Stupid?”

  1. Hale On Earth Says:

    People have always been whining about technology disconnecting people and “stupidifying” the masses. New technologies often fix older problems meanwhile introducing a hoard of new issues. Hence, more than anything technology simply shifts the problem domains. There is anythhing but a lack of necessary problem solving today.

  2. Axle Davids Says:

    For my 10 year old son, his hour of screen time every day is a very real world to him. We just came back from the country. He was so happy. “Civilization!” he cheered, as the car pulled up in the driveway.

    I think we’re losing the ability to solve small problems and gaining the ability to solve bigger ones.

    Stupid? No. Idiot-savants? Oh yeah.

  3. Wil Says:

    Within one more generation people will find it impossible to carry on most of their daily functions without computer support. As it is now the modern world is filled with illiterate, brain dead, cell phone worshipping kids with their faces glued to a screen of some sort. These are tomorrow’s adults.

  4. RS Says:

    How many of you can grow your own food, make your own clothes, birth your own babies or build your own house? Now, what do you think great great grandpa or grandma would think about you?

    Sure today’s kids (or taxi cab drivers for that matter) may not be able to find their way across town without a cell phone or GPS system but when your computer freezes and that RFP is due by 5:00 p.m. who do you call… great grandma or that brain dead, cell phone worshipping punk kid.

    So to answer the question… are computers making us stupid? No. They are making us much interdependent. But isn’t that the point of specialization and trade? And aren’t we better off because of it?

  5. Michael Wells Says:

    When I was shooting the sunflowers, the problem wasn’t that I was using my multi-purpose cell phone, it was that I wasn’t paying attention to my environment. Likewise, I’m not against GPS but someone like a cabbie whose business is to get people around town should know the town. I’m not so worried about stupid I guess as disconnected, even disembodied in the sense of not paying attention to or even feeling where our bodies are.

    RS raises a good point. Things like knowing how to grow food, sew, do carpentry ground us. Computers making us more interconnected is good, but if we lose connection to the material and sensual it’s not a fair trade.

    I like knowing my way around a city. I learned more about how Portland is put together in 6 months driving cab as I did in the six previous years I’d lived here, and I’m richer for it.

    The trick is going to be, how do we fit new technology into our lives without losing touch with those lives? Just one more thing to multitask isn’t the answer. Some things are generally lost in change, but our relation to the world shouldn’t be one of them.

  6. Mark Petry Says:

    Great topic and quite relevant. While there is no question that the net, and mobile computing in particular, have made our lives better in many ways (imagine trying to meet a colleague in a strange city without a cell phone) I think that we’ve given up the sense of involvement that makes us passionate and stimulates breakthru thinking.

    One of the problems with mobile messaging, texting, twitter etc (my opinion at least) is the utter trivialization of all communications. If it does’nt fit into 148 characters, or one- syllable acronym (ROFLMAO and an emoticon) it just doesn’t get sent because it takes too much time.

    Not to mention that you almost never have anybody’s full attention, even when you’ve flown 1000s of miles to pitch a potentially lucrative project. You can’t tell the decision makers to just put their friggin Iphone down.

    And of course the current distracted driving discussion.

    I think the key here is to keep the relative importance and urgency of all activities in mind, and direct your attention accordingly. Not every message has to be replied to in seconds. It’s clearly more important that you drive safely than to see where the market closed today. And of course, keep your eye on your shopping list or your computer bag, or it may walk away while you’re looking at your blackberry.

  7. RS Says:

    All great points and I agree.

    The point I was trying to make is that technology is an enabler and must boost everyone’s productivity (obviously not all technology) otherwise people would not use it.

    Back to the cabbie as an example. If a cabbie must know the layout of an entire city, it would take months to years to “make” one cabbie, yet with GPS, it does not take even take one day to “make” one. Hence, the GPS is a technology that codifies the learning that someone else has put in place and then gives it to someone else without their having to learn it by themselves. It allows someone to discover something and give it to someone else without their having to learn it. In other words, technology allows people to “share” their knowledge immediately, thus increasing the codified stock of knowledge available to everyone else.

  8. Buzzcut Says:

    To take Michael’s taxi example one step further…

    Why do you even need a taxi driver? High end cars today can literally drive themselves. The replacement of hydrualic power steering with electric units mean that most cars these days have the means to drive themselves. All that is needed is the other systems that high end cars have: navigation, laser or radar cruise control, lane depatture prevention, etc.

    Honda sells a car in Britain that will drive itself on the highway. The driver just needs to lightly hold the wheel (for liability purposes, I’m sure).

    We’re very close to cars that drive themselves… and no more need for taxi drivers.

    I’m sure that it has more to do with age than modern technology, but lately I find myself unable to do even simple arithmatic. My kids are learning arithmetic now, and I find myself just not able to do it in my head anymore.

  9. Michael Wells Says:

    “I think the key here is to keep the relative importance and urgency of all activities in mind, and direct your attention accordingly.”

    “..lately I find myself unable to do even simple arithmatic.”

    So the solution may be Buddhism. What’s important may turn out to be mindfulness and practice. Mindfulness in terms of staying aware of the world and our place in it. Practice in both the meditation sense but also the “use it or lose it” one. I started losing the ability to do math in my head after I had a computer for a few years, and I can’t spell any more either. Some of it may be age, but I think more is just not doing for ourselves. The brain cells that handled arithmetic have moved on to tracking iPhone apps. Maybe Sudoku would help?

  10. Michael Wells Says:

    “Back to the cabbie as an example. If a cabbie must know the layout of an entire city, it would take months to years to “make” one cabbie, yet with GPS, it does not take even take one day to “make” one. Hence, the GPS is a technology that codifies the learning that someone else has put in place and then gives it to someone else without their having to learn it by themselves. It allows someone to discover something and give it to someone else without their having to learn it.”

    And therein lies the rub. If it means getting a cabbie up to speed faster, then it’s a good thing — but in my opinion only if it’s also a means of him/her learning the city. If it continues to be a crutch, then what it does is keeps that driver essentially a permanent novice.

    I drove cab twice — once in Concord, Mass and once in Portland. In both cases my training was going out with an experienced driver for one shift, then being given a map. Fortunately, most people taking cabs know where they’re going and can give directions. I may have taken some wrong turns, but boy did I learn fast.

  11. Steve Bryan Says:

    Let me see if I can summarize: “You kids, get off my lawn!”

  12. Kenf Says:

    Why didn’t you put the shopping list on the iPhone?

  13. Henry Brulard Says:

    “Axle Davids Says:
    October 12th, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    I think we’re losing the ability to solve small problems and gaining the ability to solve bigger ones.

    Stupid? No. Idiot-savants? Oh yeah.”

    Exactly what bigger problems are we now able to solve as the result of this technology?

  14. Axle Davids Says:

    Henry, a small problem that I can’t solve? Hmmm… I don’t know my 12 times tables all the way through. A big problem I can solve? With the help of fixitnow.com I repaired my washing machine myself. http://applianceguru.com/view_topic.php?id=19316&forum_id=2&jump_to=125777

  15. Michael Wells Says:

    Of course, someone is studying this. The general conclusion is that computers don’t damage our memories as long as we’re using them for other things. Also that while it’s possible to document everything you do, who cares?
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/11/03/digital.diary.brain.mind/index.html

    I think the real question is still mindfulness. Do we get less connected to the real world, are we spending enough time on reflection, are computers etc. improving the quality of our experiences?

  16. Lemon Tree Tami Says:

    I have a GPS and it’s been very helpful with finding my way to new places in the Bay Area. Since I didn’t grow up here I don’t have a really good sense of place. Almost immediately I became dependent on it. Now I try to figure out where someplace is without it. I’m still learning – it’s harder because I know I have the GPS as a backup.

    I’m always forgetting my shopping list. Now I just type it on the computer and send it to my cell phone using a free service: http://lists2go.mobi … I find that I don’t buy as many junk items and I remember to get the milk now.

  17. july Says:

    I think in a way, yes, computers do make us stupid..in a sense that we become overly dependent to them and forget to hone our skills to make it better. Just for example, when the calculator was first developed, some people became dependent to it and forgot to develop their computing skills. I am one example of it :D