As a child, you memorized your friend’s phone numbers; now you just add them to your phone. You are used to remembering directions; now you just use your GPS. Are people getting stupid?

It depends on what you mean. You could argue that we are getting less good at remembering things, including phone numbers and instructions. But does this mean that we are less intelligent?

Not necessary. Of course, intelligence is not just memorization. But doesn’t using our brains to remember things make us less intelligent through lack of practice? And do many of the distractions that the digital world offers keep us from learning new things or thinking deeply?

This may be an impossible question, but many have tried. Let’s take a look at just a few of the outstanding thoughts.

Does SMS-Speak mess up the language?

You knew how to write correctly when you were younger, but seriously: kids these days with their text messages, tweets, etc. will never learn how to write proper letters.

Except that they will. Think about it: teens who text all day are constantly engaging in written communication—meaning they’re practicing how to use the written word to be understood correctly. Social dynamics in high school, whatever they are, clear communication is very important.

writing skills

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So before blaming SMS speech for declining grammatical skills, consider this: A 2010 study found that heavy use of SMS abbreviations was «positively associated with word reading, vocabulary, and phonological measures of awareness.»

An SMS conversation may not be recognizable to an outsider, but it is made up of consistent patterns and rules. Knowing how to navigate this world gives anyone an edge when it comes to how to communicate — much like learning French can help you with your English grammar.

Of course, this is hardly a settled question — we will be investigating this for many years. But it’s a good reminder that there are multiple ways to look at any subject, including how technology affects our intelligence.

Is Google making us stupid?

It can be argued that one important part of intelligence is contemplation—the ability to perceive big ideas and understand what they mean. Writer Nicholas Carr famously wondered if making us stupid in 2008. Even today, this article is worth reading when considering whether the constant consumption of superficial bits of information on the Internet affects our ability to think deeply.


Carr begins by saying he feels the Internet has influenced him:

What the Net seems to be doing is destroying my ability to concentrate and contemplate.

He continues: “Now my mind expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: a fast-moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of ​​words. Now I’m running on the surface like a guy on a jet ski.»

Carr is careful not to overdo it by pointing to historical examples of people making such predictions, such as Socrates condemning the written word. But it is worth thinking about the main thesis that constantly reading short articles instead of reading long ones affects our ability to think deeply.

It’s not the first time

Of course, not everyone agrees with Carr’s statement. Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote a New York Times article in which he argued that there was no evidence that technology was making us stupid:

New forms of media have always caused moral panic: printing presses, newspapers, paperbacks, and television were once denounced as a threat to the intelligence and morale of their consumers.


It’s true: people have claimed that the printing press has made us stupid, just like people claim that smartphones are now. New technologies always provoke a strong reaction. Not and humanity is becoming stupid because of technological progress, as a rule, one of such arguments.

Pinker argues that, if anything, humanity is progressing faster than ever before. The result of scientific research, for example, is accelerating. Part of what makes this possible is access to information.

“Knowledge is growing exponentially,” he says. “The human mind and waking hours are not like that. Fortunately, the Internet and information technology is helping us manage, search, and retrieve our collective intellectual output at multiple scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias.”

Not only do these technologies not make us stupid, they make us smarter.

Of course, accessing all this information can be distracting, especially if you have a poor information diet. . But Pinker argues that this is not news — and that there are solutions.

The solution is not to bemoan technology, but to develop strategies for self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off email or Twitter when you’re at work, put away your Blackberry during lunch, ask your spouse to call you to bed at the appointed hour.

We are getting smarter

Radio, television, the Internet… sources of distraction have been increasing over the past 100 years. Is there data that suggests it made us stupid? On the contrary, say the supporters of the Flynn effect. The Flynn effect, named after James Flynn, the moral philosopher, signifies the increase in intelligence over the past 100 years.

Flynn explored how IQ tests became more complex over time. His results point to a consistent increase in intelligence throughout the 20th century.

We’re not just asking a few more questions straight about IQ tests, we’re getting a lot more questions straight about IQ tests in every successive generation — at the time they were invented.

How pronounced is this difference? Flynn says the average person today would be considered «gifted» by 100-year-old standards, while the average person from then on would be considered mentally retarded today. The big difference, he argues, is the ability to think abstractly.

“We have gone from people who are faced with a specific world, and analyzed this world, first of all, in terms of how it benefits them, people who are facing a very complex world,” he says. «It’s a world where we’ve had to develop new mental habits, new habits of the mind.»

Part of this model is the democratization of information: broad education and access to information means that anyone who wants to learn can. This was not necessarily the case 100 years ago.

«Aristocracy [в конце 1800-х годов] was convinced that the average person cannot do this, that they can never share their thinking or their cognitive abilities,” Flynn concludes in her recent TED talk, which was included above.

Of course, the sheer amount of information processed by the average Internet user leads to all sorts of new mental habits.

Noam Chomsky: people read less

Whatever you think of Noam Chomsky — and people have said a lot — the following video is worth watching. In this, Chomsky fights against the influence the Internet has on our minds.

He uses the letters he gets as a guide — they get shorter.

“Many of the emails that come in… are one sentence,” he explains. “Most often it comes to someone’s mind when they are walking down the street. If they had thought about it for two minutes, they wouldn’t have sent it.»

He also says that many people stop responding when Chomsky suggests that people read the book in response to a request — suggesting it’s too much work.

The thought that you might want to read something… that’s too much. You cannot do this.

Like many other thinkers, Chomsky admits that the Internet offers many benefits — he simply laments what he sees as a loss.

“That’s the truth about everything,” he concludes. «You can say the same about the printing press.»

What is Google Knowledge?

If you’ve read this far, I’m amazed — people read less these days, so you should really care about this subject. As a reward, I’ve saved one of my favorite videos about this question for last: the excellent PBS Idea Channel «Is Google Knowledge?».

Now the desire to know and to know happens at about the same time. It’s like how your brain works.

Mike Rugnetta’s conclusion that googling anything for all practical purposes is the same as knowing something is probably not going to be accepted by most people for a long time. But I’m curious: do you think we’ll eventually get to the point where this is the case? Let’s discuss this and many of the ideas above in the comments below. I’m looking forward to it.

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