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Is Technology Making Us Dumber?

Does our reliance on computers diminish our ability to think?

I can still remember how impressed I was with my father's academic friends. Whatever I said to them, they always had an answer. I'd point to a ship in my book, and they'd tell me about the Bremen, the Lusitania, and the United States . . . all the great passenger liners. I'd talk about elephants and they answered with stories of Africa, Asia, Hannibal's warriors and the Indian Maharajahs. I was so impressed with their vast knowledge.

I read books all day long, and it seemed like I didn't know a fraction of what those grownups knew. Of course, they were thirty and I was seven, but I wasn't old enough to take subtle points like that into account.

My grandparents didn't know nearly as much. I'd ask my grandmother about helicopters, and she'd just say, Honey child, I don't know a thing about helicopters! When I asked why she didn't know, my grandfather had the answer. Those college people know a little about everything, but nothing about anything. I doubt any of them could plow a field!

I never did get the chance to see if my parents' friends could plow fields. But as I got older, I realized folks who could talk intelligently about many topics were pretty rare, and the ones who knew more than the most superficial tidbits were rarer still. I was just lucky to have a bunch of them in my life early on. So it was a neat thing, finding new people like that as I got older.

By the time I was eighteen, I knew a few good places to look for people who knew something about everything. The Umass Science Fiction Society, for example, was full of geeks with an overabundance of esoteric knowledge. As time passed, I found more and more pockets of arcane understanding throughout the Pioneer Valley, where I lived.

The knowledgeable people I found were always rare and special. Consequently, I grew up believing knowledge was something to be treasured. Not anymore. Any fool with a Blackberry or Iphone can look up life's answers at the drop of a hat, provided there's cell phone service. So where does that leave the knowledgeable geeks of yesterday? I guess what was special has become ordinary, at least on first glance.

What happened? Did the pocket Internet make everyone smarter? Or does it just facilitate snappy comebacks, with a sixty-second web browser delay? I used to think the Internet was a tide that lifted all boats, knowledge wise, but now I wonder if the opposite is true. I think the Internet and information technology in general makes us dumber, in some key ways.

When I was a kid, you had to actually memorize and know the capitals of foreign countries if you wanted to talk geography. And you never knew when that might happen. Even today, I know Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia, and Quito is the capital of Ecuador. I can point them out on a map.

So what, today's young people say. The iphone will tell you more about Ulan Bator in sixty seconds than I could possibly remember. That's true, but by relying on the computer, we stop training out minds, and we stop filling our memory banks. By doing so, I believe we diminish our ability to solve life's problems unaided, and we become more and more dependent on machines. When the machines give us answers, we seem superficially smarter, but we really are dumber, because we're not building the networks in our brains to solve a whole host of problems.

Want another example of this? Think navigation. I went my whole life looking at maps and finding my way. I have a long, long history of reaching my destinations, whether on foot, by boat, or by car. I looked at a map, related it to the world around me, and found my way. All too often, navigation today is handed off to a machine. Many motorists can't make sense of a basic road map, or estimate the distance between two points on a printed page. They are lost if their machine loses touch with the satellites.

Most of the time, technology works as it should. People get to their destinations faster thanks to computers. But people who rely on machines have given up something vital yet intangible. They've lost the ability to think it through a navigation problem themselves. They have become slaves to machines out of intellectual laziness, and the laziness makes them less smart. The brain wiring that solves navigation problems allows us to solve other problems too. Computers don't have that flexibility, and neither do we when we abdicate our thinking to machines.

I think this point is lost on many young people today. After all, if they have not developed certain processing abilities in their minds, how can they know what they are missing? I know, because I see what I lose when I rely on technology and it fails. I think of my frustration when my car gets lost, and I recall all those times when I solved my own problems and found my own way, uneventfully albeit a bit slower.

For many people, web browsing has replaced book reading. Recent studies suggest that their attention spans are reduced as a result. When we rely on a computer to look up facts, instead of our own memory, the price may not be obvious. But I believe it's there, and it real.

It's a point to ponder for sure. Easy answers aren't always free.