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Is tech making us stupid?

Our gadgets auto-complete, remember for us, and think for us. What’s to become of our brains? This statements have been pouring in from scientific studies across the world.

brunch Updated: Aug 25, 2012 17:47 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times

The above statements have been pouring in from scientific studies across the world. This is their essential premise: that multitasking between emails, Facebook, Twitter, TV, mobile phones, tablets and gaming consoles have made us perpetually distracted and a scatter-brained race. Not only is the new era of information technology making us less creative and more muddled – it’s put into place a permanent change in the way our brain maps information, how it retains it, which parts are used how and even the size of the brain is going through a metamorphosis. Very scary, right? Wait, there’s more.

Shallow and fried

The first news of this came when a series of articles and a book was released by Nicholas Carr. His argument was that ever since the advent of the Internet, we as a human race have been becoming more stupid. His book (The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember) made some very compelling points. Taking himself to be the guinea pig, Carr said that over the last few years the way he read and absorbed books was completely changing. He said, “I was losing my own capacity for concentration and contemplation. Even when I was away from my computer, my mind seemed hungry for constant stimulation, for quick hits of information. I felt perpetually distracted.”

Carr’s theory found many followers. A huge number of them agreed and said that the way they were thinking, reading, absorbing and learning was becoming disjointed. Every part of knowledge assimilated was not absorbed into the brain but kept at an arm’s distance on a computer. Some of his findings were startling:

People who are continually distracted by emails, updates and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate on one thing.

People who juggle tasks are often less creative and productive than those who do one thing at a time.

As the number of links in an online document goes up, reading comprehension falls.

As more types of information are placed on a screen, we remember less of what we see.

The richness of our thoughts, memories and our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration.

When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, our brains can’t forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give distinctiveness and depth to our thinking.

When we have to juggle between mobiles, computer screens and emails, our thoughts become disjointed, our memories weak.

And while Carr was criticised for concentrating mainly on the written word, his books, articles and conclusions struck a chord with tech users across the world.

The dumb-ass generation

Once this all-new thought process was introduced and accepted, the floodgates were open. Studies showed that people who were given a computer to solve a problem could not retain the problem-solving skills they had used a week earlier, while the same skills used without a computer were recalled by users even after six months. Another study showed that children introduced to computers started scoring lower grades. In fact, if you Google this subject right now, you will get thousands of articles and studies that prove with precision how technology is neurologically shaping us to become more stupid in the future.

The greatest scare that is out there is that the digital generation, children born in the last 10 years, will have reduced metal abilities as they grow up. They’ll be adults with brains that jump all over the place, ninnies with the memory retention of a goldfish, with brains that have shrunk to the size of a pea. They won’t be able to sit still for long, concentrate or come up with creative innovations and ideas. New thinking, innovation and creativity in this world as we know it is likely to die in the next 50 years!

What exactly is going on here? Wasn’t technology, the Net, Google and all other tools supposed to make us smarter? Wasn’t the fact that we now have reams of information supposed to kickstart a new creative and innovative process? Weren’t we going to be a smarter race due to technology? When did the process reverse?

The smart truth

It hasn’t reversed. We aren’t becoming more stupid. Technology isn’t the villain here. Innovation and creativity won’t die a brutal death. We are just evolving as human beings always have. For years, the human brain and the way it functions has remained almost the same. The human brain today is very different from the time man was a hunter-gatherer, but for many years since civilisation it has stagnated. This is the first hardcore reboot of the human mind in a very long time.

The change that seems to have got the critics in a knot, is actually us preparing for a brand new world. A world where the brain doesn’t need to process useless information. What is the use of your brain storing 40 mobile numbers? Whom does it help? Isn’t your mobile phone directory with 1,000 numbers, email addresses, birthday dates and notes about each person a far better and more efficient system to record numbers and dates?

It’s freed up your mind to understand and remember better ways of retrieving that massive set of information. Your brain now knows better ways to search and use all that data you’ve kept. It’s the same with our new technique of ‘skimming’ information. Today we can scan a web page and make sense of 90 per cent of the content within the first five seconds. Only if it’s what we were looking for do we remain on the page – otherwise off we go to the next one till we find the exact and precise piece we were looking for. How is that bad? The ability to skim and reach a conclusion so quickly is proof the human brain evolving to the next level.

See the bright side

Then there’s the fact that information overload has a high threshold. Many have been able to make it to the other side as more evolved beings – with the ability to filter redundant information from the true hidden gems. In this way they get the best of both worlds – lots of information and high quality knowledge. Of course, the classic debate of the printed page versus the Internet page will continue. Who is to say that reading a page printed on paper slowly and with full concentration versus reading many pages on the Net by jumping to many pieces of content on the same subject is more superior?
Book this now: Who is to say that reading a page printed on paper is more superior?

Maybe the hyper jumping is triggering an all-new level of intelligence that will show its true colours in some years. A new intelligence that may give birth to innovation and inventions at an unprecedented scale.

Technology has always been painted a villain too soon. There’s that famous saying that technology always comes bearing great gifts with one hand and stabs you in the back with the other. This time it doesn’t apply. Technology and the information highway is the greatest gift to mankind. True solid proof of that will show up soon. But if it doesn’t happen, don’t blame me! After all this column is being written by somebody who uses technology and the Internet 16 hours a day. You can’t blame somebody who is progressively becoming more stupid every single day.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, CellGuru and Newsnet 3.Follow Rajiv on Twitter at /RajivMakhni

From HT Brunch, August 26

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First Published: Aug 25, 2012 16:57 IST