“Are we smarter or dumber?” A friend of mine asked me that recently and prompted me to explore that dilemmatic question.
My friend was referring to the technology that labels itself smart: smart cell phones, smart TVs, smart speakers, etc. And he wondered, as I do now, if all that technology was really making us smarter—or dumber.
One example is the app on our cell phones that gets us to our desired destinations. We simply type in an address (or speak the address into a phone), and it gives us the most direct map, tells us when we’re going to arrive and gives us step-by-step, street-by-street guidance along the way.
Smarter, I first said to myself. That app makes me smarter. I get to places I want to go more smoothly than when I lived in the pre-cellphone era.
But then I thought some more. What happens if I forget to bring my cellphone with me? Or if it’s lost its charge? Or worse, what if it gives me, as it occasionally does, the wrong directions?
I used to be good at utilizing paper maps. I learned that skill in Boy Scouts and continued to hone it by acquiring dozens of AAA maps. When I would drive 2,300 miles to Chicago or 60 miles into the Gold Country, I could get my family to destinations efficiently and smoothly.
But what if I had to use a paper map today? First of all, I wouldn’t be able to find one, since I tossed almost all of them out. But if I found a paper map and unfolded it, I think it would all seem strange to me, even disorienting. So am I now smarter or dumber?
Then I went down a list of other tech devices I now have that I didn’t have 40 years ago, which I’ll label as “smart,” even if they’re not generally known that way. My list included desktop computers, I-pads, the internet, smart TVs, cell phones and all the apps that appear on cell phones. That’s a lot to consider.
Consider first the internet. When I first became aware of it, in the early 1990’s, my first reaction was, “This is a fad. It will never last.” Well, that made me seem pretty dumb.
Now as I reflect on the internet, I think of all the information I can access that I previously couldn’t. I can now retrieve almost any item of information, play any song, get any sports score within seconds.
As a writer and editor for the Westside Express, the internet is a tremendous help. If I need to check on the accuracy of a spelling of a name (very important to this newspaper), within a few clicks I can have it, whereas in the past I’d have to make numerous phone calls or check a printed telephone directory (now a museum piece).
When I taught college English courses, I used to spend a great deal of time on how a student could find information in the library. I was providing them with a very important skill then. Now I wouldn’t have to. Finding information isn’t a skill that needs to be taught. Evaluating information is.
Which brings me back to smart or dumb. In many ways we are smarter now because we have so much information available to us. But because it’s so easy to access, I think we have become complacent and less resourceful. It’s too easy for me to say, “I found the information” and stop there, without going the extra step and asking if it’s the correct or most pertinent information and then double-checking it.
The advent of social media compounded this. Today everyone is trying to claim what they’re saying is the absolute truth or, worse, that their opinion is the only correct one. This is not smart. This is delusional.
The technology of the “spell check” is another example. We seem smart today when we type something with our computer and then use a spell check app. We don’t need to consult a dictionary, just click on the correct spelling of our previously misspelled word.
But that app has its limitations. As my friend John Lupini pointed out, a person could type this into his or her computer: “The spill chucker makes ewe a bitter speller,” and the app might not catch any mistakes. Again, if we don’t trust our minds more than technology, we are headed for chaos.
How about current technology that enables us to talk to cell phones, TVs and speakers? It provides so much convenience. But how strange it would have seemed to people 40 years ago, seeing people talk to a TV. That would have been grounds for sending them to the looney bin.
So what is the answer to my friend’s question, “Are we smarter or dumber today?” I would leave that up to my readers.
Consider the convenience of technology versus the tendency for us to become lazy when using it. Consider the fact that our minds are like shovels; they get sharper the more we use them. Is technology encouraging us to use our minds more or less?
The next time you use an app rather than a printed map or you search for information on the internet or talk into some inanimate device, ask yourself that question and see what answer emerges.
John Spevak’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.