"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, June 6, 2014

Does the Computer Make Us Dumb?

I worked with a professor in physical chemistry at Chicago who was pretty much convinced that calculators made students dumb. Sydney Harris, back in 1977, wrote the following in the Lakeland Ledger:

"We have become a gadget-happy generation, but the gadgets make us dumber, not smarter. You had to know something about math and logarithms to use the old slide-rule, anybody can use the new pocket calculator."

Presently, anyone who has access to the internet either through a personal computer, laptop, android, or smart phone can easily post "bits of wisdom", quotes, memes on Facebook for everyone to see and read. Some can easily go viral with hundreds of likes and shares in less than an hour. If calculators of decades ago affected our math skills, are the gadgets of this age affecting our ability to write, read and think? An article by Michael S. Rosenwald in the Washington Post raises this issue.

Rosenwald goes as far as citing cognitive scientists who are currently studying how the brain adapts to a changing world. A digital brain, one that can scan and skim effortlessly through screens of news feed on Facebook, is about to emerge. Is this similar to a brain that can direct fingers to punch keys on a calculator but is unable to do simple math? There are indeed serious concerns that the internet can change the circuitry in our brains. Here is an excerpt from the book, The Shallows:

The suggestion that calculators made students incapable of doing simple arithmetic is wrong. The suggestion that the internet is making us dumb is likewise wrong. Although the brain has enormous plasticity, it does not change dramatically. Basic education, for example, takes several years at least a decade.

There are studies that have compared how well we comprehend when reading on screen versus when reading on print. The following shows that reading on screen leads to less comprehension:

International Journal of Educational Research 58 (2013) 61–68
The reason, however, as to why reading on paper seems better, however, is not clear. It seems mysterious that by simply changing the medium, reading comprehension can be affected. Here is another study that shows that there is no difference between reading on screen and reading on paper (This article is from Teaching of Psychology):

The last sentence of the above abstract perhaps captures the truth. It is human behavior. And a study in Israel demonstrates this quite convincingly:

Gadgets allow us to be lazy. Critical reading requires hard work. Facebook, for example, allows us to share ideas, news, views and opinions as quickly as a click on a mouse. It is effortless. It is also easy to find only the things we like. There is no need to vet since it is not difficult to find others who share our views. It is easy to have the illusion that we are experts since the cost of publishing one's view is now close to zero. In fact, sound bites are better, copy someone else's quote, post it, and we feel intelligent.

Calculators and the internet share one thing in common. These are tools that have indeed empowered humanity. I like both. These do not rewire our brains. What these gadgets do, however, is to simply highlight something we already knew. We like shortcuts and we do not like hard work. We like trends and we do not like careful thinking. We like sound bites and we do not like heavy articles.

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