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NEW: Can Technology (Also) Make Us Stupid?

It is not difficult to find the many ways technology extends our reach. The early defining vision for Bill Gates at Microsoft went under the banner: Information at Our Fingertips. This was the title of Gates’ speech at Comdex in January 1995, and you can watch his speech even now.

Today this vision is partially realized. How far is it from Chicago to Dallas? How do I assemble a crib from a box of parts? What is the status of my order from Amazon? How do I drive to an unknown address? Who is Stephen Hawking? What is the source of this particular quote? What is the square root of 150? How much will I pay in interest over the life of my mortgage? Is there a layperson’s version of the theory of relativity? What could be wrong with me since I am having these symptoms?

It is amazing to ponder how I would have gone about addressing these kinds of questions 30 years ago. Today, the response is quickly and (often) accurately available.

So I am fully on board with the idea that technology makes us smart, or appear so. How can it also make us stupid?

Rather than a comprehensive answer to this question, let me offer a series of anecdotes to illustrate the point. Perhaps others will contribute to the list.

1. I recently heard the statement, “Why do I need an education? I can find the answer to any question on the Internet.” We illustrated some of these answers above. But …

  • In broad terms, an education is more about developing the questions (the hard part) than giving the answer.
  • You wouldn’t know to ask the question unless you were aware of the need for and possibility of an answer.
  • When answers are tough (i.e., what is the cure for cancer?), the hard part is breaking an unanswerable question into questions with helpful partial answers.

2. “Why do I need to learn multiplication tables? I can always use a calculator.” Yes, but …

  • It is difficult to reason without some sense of what the numbers mean.
  • It takes much longer to pull out a calculator to get the answer to 9 x 7 than simply recognizing it as 63.
  • How do I detect a data error if I don’t know what to expect. I had a bill for $6.72 at a fast food place and handed the young man a $20. He gave me $17.27 in change. I pointed out that it couldn’t be right, and he pointed to the numbers on the machine.
  • I had a bill for $5.07 and handed the clerk $10 along with $.10. She didn’t know what to do with the $.10 and started to hand it back to me.

3. “Why do I need to learn to spell? I can always use spellcheck.” Yes, but …

  • Understanding the meaning and the spelling of words is vital to communication. There is a big difference between effect and affect, for example, or honey and homey. All are fine with spell check. What did you mean?
  • Sometimes without a sense of the right spelling, even spellcheck can offer no option. (Guilty!)
  • As spell checkers get more sophisticated, and go beyond marking misspelled words to automatically replacing them, we need to know what these beasts have done to us. The iPhone is a great source of amusement with its aggressive word replacement, but a great source of misunderstanding when the message gets sent.

4. It’s wonderful that we can now take notes on the computer rather than on paper. The information is readable, retrievable, and many of us can keyboard much faster than we can write. Yes, but …

  • Recent research has shown that you retain less when the information is entered through the keyboard than when it is written in longhand. Thoughts about this include the ability to take notes faster means you summarize less and the information is not processed as carefully by the brain.¹
  • The distraction factor often means that once online, it is too easy to drift away to something that has nothing to do with the class or meeting.

5. Technology enables a business to automatically provide much information that used to require a person. Technology can answer the phone, route the call, recommend new products, and identify web based resources where the customer can quickly solve his or her own problem. Yes, but …

  • Tonight I tested the limits of this system trying to resolve an email problem with Comcast.
  • The automated system insisted my problem was a billing issue, and I got to wait 10 minutes on the line listening to messages about other products I could buy before getting the wrong person.
  • I was routed to technical support with the promise to solve my problem (failure to receive certain emails from an address in Europe) only to be told that because their test mail got through I had no problem.
  • After five such calls and similar diagnosis, I finally got escalated to Level 2 support, and for the first time a person listened to my real problem. He promised a resolution. We will see.
  • I am sure such systems cut costs and increase efficiency, but at what price and what customer dissatisfaction?

6. Through technology we can always be connected, always in touch. As Gates said, we have information at our fingertips. Yes, but …

  • Since we each have only 24 hours in a day, what is lost in personal relationships?
  • In March 2014 the statistics showed that 26 percent of all accidents have a root cause in the use of a cellphone while driving.

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7. Because of all of the information available, there is nothing we cannot know. The growth in accessible information, going back to older resources now being digitized, is overwhelming. What an opportunity.
Yes, but …

  • Again since each of us is limited by 24 hours in a day, we also have the opportunity to know more and more about less and less.
  • We can (and do) narrow our sources to the point where we never hear the other side of a story.
  • This phenomena may be at the heart of the growing political divide, as our “truth” comes to us through very narrow filters — on both the left and the right.

We have hardly scratched the surface. It seems that being smart in the digital age will require a new kind of education. It is not that the technology can’t help us, because it surely can. But it takes us to a different place. It will require rethinking what it is to be an educated citizen in the digital age. All of us. I find myself embedded in each of these accounts. It takes discipline and learning. Otherwise the technology will also make us stupid.

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

 

¹P. A. Mueller, D. M. Oppenheimer. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 2014

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