When we have to ask Google to answer that question, then perhaps the answer is yes; we are getting dumber. The 21st century is the Information Age, when technological development has changed the way we work, learn, play, and interact. But frankly, as our machines have progressed, we have suffered from computer dependency. More information available online does not necessarily equate a knowledge-based society. Technology is taking over, causing things infinitely easier to achieved – is this necessarily a good thing?
“We are a gadget-happy nation, but the gadgets make us dumber, not smarter," wrote Sydney Justin Harris, an American journalist, in 1977 for the Lakeland Ledger. Imagine what Harris (1917-1986) would think of human's intelligence today, and of the technology progress and changes we have experienced over the last decade.
Remember when we were able to memorize phone numbers? When we use to write letters with hands? When technology means typewriters, home telephones, cassettes, and pocket calculators? Have we forgotten how to use our brains without the help of computers?
Today you buy a smartphone (notice the word "smart"), and then stare at it for eight hours. The next thing you know you are sleeping with your phone in hand. And soon you discover there is an app for everything – shopping, cooking, sleeping, and even peeing (see Run and Pee). App Store now hosts two million applications worldwide. Sensor Tower predicts that the number will grow to reach 5.06 million active apps by the end of 2020.
One of the top five most used apps in 2016 is Google Maps. People rely on the app more than their spatial navigation memory. Many scientists including McGill University researchers suggest that with increased dependence on GPS, hippocampus (the front part of the brain that controls memory) is progressively getting smaller.
"Far from making us stupid, new media technologies are the only things that will keep us smart,” cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote a counter-argument in his Op-Ed for the New York Times. “Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias."
Ok Pinker, let’s talk about the Internet. Twenty-six years after the introduction of the World Wide Web, the availability of all information in the world at our fingertips has made us dimmer. Again, we become less dependent on our memories for data storage and retrieval, and this caused “digital amnesia.” Google might provide the best external memory bank, but people got to have knowledge stored in their head, not just in their computers.
“When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it,” wrote psychologist Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, quoted recently from TIME. “It’s good to know where to find the information you need—but decades of cognitive science research shows that skills like critical thinking and problem-solving can be developed only in the context of factual knowledge.“
Students do their research online, and technologies are the number one resource for education. Everyone has easy access to a lot of examples, and it's easier to copy work from other sources. We don’t have to work hard on experiment or experience things in first hand to get the information needed. We become mindless consumers of data; this is when we lose our originality, creativity, narrowing our thinking to programmable computers. “The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers,” another quote by Mr. Harris says it all.
Of course, more information means more options, and highly advantageous technology truly makes life a lot easier. But how we choose to use technologies impacts our analytical, spatial, and cultural intelligence. First, choose carefully things that you want to put in your brain since stupidity is also more visible online (Kardashian, Kanye, Trump). Then don’t depend too much on computers; the solution is not to ban technology altogether but to develop strategies of self-control. Care more about the real life and not gadgets' battery life.
If things continue as they do, humanity will eventually be divided into two groups: the techies that understand and control everything, and everyone else that completely dependent on technology to survive.