Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Smart Phones and Dumb People

Ok, kids, change of pace.
A friend of mine posted this story about smart technology on Facebook a couple weeks ago. 
It's interesting reading, and I think the author makes a good distinction between technologies that enable you to overcome problems/be informed vs. those that try to force you to behave a certain way or share all your information with others. One size fits all, doesn't. Anything that tries to conform people to the same mold and limit individual liberty--including the liberty to make mistakes and do stupid things--worries me. We don't really have a paradigm for dealing with these types of problems yet and deciding how far is too far. 
However, from the headline of the piece ("Are Smart Gadgets Making Us Dumb?"), I thought the article was going to be about something somewhat different, as did my friend, so we ended up discussing what we thought the article was about rather than what it actually discussed.

My friend said, "I think there are 'smart' things that are making us dumb, or less able to think on our own, but the article doesn't cover that much. Math teachers having been arguing for years that calculators are encouraging students to never learn basic math."
Yes, yes they have. But that leads me to one of my pet rants. I thought I would post it here and see what you guys think. ^_^
Smart gadgets are not necessarily making us less smart so much as changing our intelligence. 
The same thing happened when we switched from being an oral culture to a literate one. Smart stopped meaning memorizing lots of things and started meaning knowing how to read well. We no longer memorize and recite The Odyssey, we read it in a book.
Now being smart means knowing how to use machines to help you get answers that were once found in books, and which before that had to be memorized.

So it's not necessarily less smart, but differently smart. In all cases it matters not so much what you know or know how to do, it's what you do with that knowledge. 

Lots of people can remember things in an oral culture, but only a few create that which is worth remembering. Lots of people read in a literate culture, but only a a few write what's worth reading or read what others have written about discoveries and use it to make new discoveries. Lots of people use calculators and smart phones and computers, but only some use them to expand mathematics or create art or cure diseases.

So, yes, relying on a calculator makes you less able to do basic math in your head, but that only matters if you think doing math in your head is of some intrinsic importance and that being able to do it makes you smart. Because a calculator also makes it possible for you to perform longer and more complicated equations. Remember in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, one of the characters in the nineteenth-century timeline discovered some important mathematical concept, but it couldn't be proved until computers were invented. The character filled page after page with hand calculations, but an entire lifetime was not long enough to make all the calculations necessary, calculations that a computer could do in a few minutes.

Many great mathematicians and scientists are terrible at doing basic math in their heads, but that doesn't make them stupid. In a way it's intelligent to not allocate brain space to remembering basics if it means you then have brain space available for advanced thought.

Machines are, or historically have been, tools. You still have to know how to use them. The problem is, we're starting to enter territory where we no longer have to know even that, because the tools tell you how to use them and what to do. 

This loops back to the actual topic of the article and the importance of being allowed space to make mistakes. It's one thing to ask a calculator to calculate twenty divided by five for you and learn it's four, and another for the calculator to tell you that the number you want is four because that's the number all your friends wanted you to know.

I don't necessarily disagree that technology often atrophies brain functions that I, at least, consider important. But I don't think the changes it makes to our brains are always and only a bad thing any more than they are always and only a good thing.
After all, you can use smart phones to say "omg c u l8r" and watch Jersey Shore, and you can use them to read The Wall Street Journal and discuss the impact of technological changes on human intelligence (I tapped out the entirety of my side of this conversation on my smart phone while nursing T-Rex). The phone you use doesn't make you more or less smart. It's a tool you can use to exercise your brain as well as one that can let your brain be lazy.

My friend then pointed out, "I just see kids learning ways to 'cheat' and not understand what division is by relying on their calculator so much, instead of just using it as a tool to not have memorized all the division tables.

"Most common example is the need for parenthesis in using the calculator where they were 'understood' when written on paper. For the students who never understood exactly what was written, they were using their machine incorrectly for the problem and getting the wrong answer. It frustrated me to explain it over and over when they just wanted a quick fix 'so just tell me when I need them, ok mrs friend's name?'"

I agree that you still need to learn those basics in your head when you're young. That's part of understanding how to use the machines for other purposes once you're older. So I'm actually in favor of forbidding calculators until maybe high school or late middle school math classes (my younger self would NOT have agreed; I'm terrible at math! Also, it's only now that I'm older that I understand why my dad (who's a physicist) would check my math homework with a calculator but wouldn't let me use one to do it in the first place).

Then, there's also the fact that a lot of technologies change and affect our brains in ways we don't yet understand. Staring at screens has been shown to make itharder for you to sleep because the artificial lights stimulate the brain, and I do think the screens have given us rather shorter attention spans, which is a problem. So I mean. I'm pretty ambivalent about a lot of it, personally. But I suppose change always comes with costs as well as benefits, and we need to learn how to manage those costs, not stop the changes.

I'm definitely addicted to my smartphone, and am making a conscious effort to distance myself from it a bit. I can tell it's shortening my attention span, and I'm trying to negate that effect by making sure to read non-fiction in book form. But I don't think I would argue it's making me or anyone else less smart. 

What do you think? Are smart gadgets making us dumber, smarter, neither, both? 
What do you think about the actual topic of the article?
More importantly, what are you supposed to do with kids in this gadget-saturated world?

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