It has been argued that technology makes us dumber; it has also been argued that it makes us more intelligent. I wish to argue both.
Technology can be seen as a progressive outsourcing of mental capabilities. The first such invention was written language: it provided people with means of remembering things that otherwise would have taken ages to memorize. Similarly, the advent of numbers and techniques for operating with them (the abacus, abstract number representations) meant that the mental power required to perform certain operations in the brain was severely reduced. The same goes for making maps or sketches: it allowed people’s brains to visualize something without having to manipulate a whole geometric shape in their heads.
This trend towards outsourcing has continued today at an ever greater pace. For example, despite books being useful ways of storing information, they were still quite impractical when retrieving it, at least compared to the speed of our own brain when it remembers something. Today, access to information is so fast that it is starting to be almost as convenient as storage in our brain. It is not surprising that people choose to not memorize certain information they are not likely to need on a daily basis, instead leaving it in the cloud.
As machines become progressively better at retrieving information for us in fast, convenient ways, we will see this trend continue. It is even possible we will end up storing our short-term memories in the cloud, once a working brain-computer interface is created.
What does this say about our intelligence? Well, it is possible that all of this outsourcing affect our intelligence negatively: that is, in isolation we may be able to accomplish less tasks than a human who has no such aids in her everyday life. This seems to resonate with the fact that there has been a loss of brain volume from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic: as people became sedentary and specialized, it wasn’t necessary for one person to be able to do everything: their intelligence was outsourced to the community. The same is bound to happen now, with the community being much larger and specialized.
But this doesn’t mean we have become dumber. One isolated person may be, but the fact is we are never isolated. We have mobile phones, computers, tablets. We are always connected to the Internet. And our brains have adapted accordingly: they have learned to optimize their resources for this situation. Our brains are automatically adapting to the new state of affairs: that’s why you used to be able to remember more than 30 telephone numbers and today you’ll be lucky if you remember 5. Our brains have learned to outsource some of their functions, in order to optimize the performance of the brain/environment combination.
An isolated human may be less intelligent now than one born 50 years before: a connected human is certainly not. A mathematician walking in the park will be able to accomplish certain feats; a mathematician with pen and paper will certainly do more; a mathematician with a powerful computer is a force to be reckoned with. Nowadays, with our intelligence outsourced, we can find the meaning of any word in a matter of seconds. We can become informed about pretty much anything without moving from where we are. We are nowsmarter than we have ever been, if you define intelligence to be the performance of the human and the machine together. We are all cyborgs, whether we want it or not, and we have already absorbed technology and made it part of our minds, without any need for implants.
If the intelligence of the individual has increased, the intelligence of the collective has grown by leaps and bounds. Instant communication between any two people, free access to a great fraction of the planet’s research papers, huge crowdsourced repositories of knowledge available to anyone: this has the potential to take human creativity to unprecedented heights. It is already changing our society so fast that films shot in the 90s already look like prehistory.
So yes, technology has made us dumber, but not in any way that matters. We are in fact smarter than ever. Just like planes enabled us to fly, information technology will allow us to soar.
Author David Yerle Writes