Did Pencils Make Us Dumber?

from the moral-panics-through-the-ages dept

We’ve talked about the popularity of moral panics for any new kind of technology, and shown how various reports of new technologies somehow being “bad” are almost always unfounded and over exaggerated. Claims of pretty much every modern technology somehow making us dumber are almost never supported by the facts, but still, you get people just trying to drum up book sales telling us that Google makes us dumber by encouraging people not to read as much — when actual evidence shows people are reading more long-form works.

It appears there’s a recent book out, A Better Pencil, by Dennis Baron, that explores how these same fears and totally unsubstantiated moral panics seem to have come about with pretty much every new communications platform out there. Baron recently did an interview with Salon, where he pointed out that these same sorts of fears go back all the way to Plato:

I start with Plato’s critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They’re not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down — the ultimate irony.

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won’t have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there’s no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant — it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of “this is going to revolutionize everything” versus “this is going to destroy everything.”

So, forgive me for being skeptical about each new fear about each new communications technology that comes about. For all the cries of “but this time, it’s different,” it’s the same exact story we’ve seen pretty much throughout history. The technology makes it easier to communicate, and those who benefited from the older restrictions get most afraid of what the new technologies allow. Often, it just seems to be a fear that there will be more competition and more innovation, and the old-timers are afraid they’re not equipped or able to keep up.

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Comments on “Did Pencils Make Us Dumber?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Skepticism is my favorite

Actually, I believe it was Plato writing down what Socrates said or was it Plato’s students writing down what Plato said Socrates said or….was it Plato’s students writing down what Plato said but attributed to Socrates so that Plato’s students would give it more credence and then write it down?

Hulser (profile) says:

The technology makes it easier to communicate, and those who benefited from the older restrictions get most afraid of what the new technologies allow.

This makes it sound like a purely capitalistic model. I think it’s more psychological. If it were just about profit, the people who were in control of the old technology would be in the best position to see when their replacement was invented and to jump on the bandwagon. This would be the capitalistic model. But this doesn’t happen because people simply like what they know in spite of whether something they don’t know could make them more money.

Dizzley (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think it’s true that capitalism drives the resistance to technologies when it comes from vested interests – e.g. the RIAA – “Hey! Somebody’s cheating US from our profits! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

New technologies win in spite of those objections because they are ENABLING technologies. E.g. people will carry on ripping CDs (they own) onto mp3 players (they own) because it’s better. The CD producers will carry on whinging, but as Canute showed – just telling the tide to go back will never work.

Ulysses Blakeley (profile) says:

not exactly ...dumber

No the technological info tools aren’t making us “dumber”, but they are impacting the degree to which we can engage complexity. As a manager of college hires in the IT realm since 1995, I will say that I see an unambiguous decline in the ability to sustain “complex thought”. Problem resolution, in depth instruction, multi-threaded, lengthy narrative, have all had to be significantly deconstructed in order to make use of the average graduate (in their ‘as delivered’ state). Without studies of my own to reference I would not speculate as to what aspect of the technology is at work, but something has made them less useful than they typically were in the past. Nooo, it’s not “dumber” but …..

DJ (profile) says:

Re: not exactly ...dumber

Yeah that phenomenon has nothing to do with the advancement of technology; at least not directly. For example, how many TV sets were in the average household during the civil war vs. how many are there now? This is the same thing that has happened throughout history as technology advances.

As technology advances, so, too, does the basic understanding of technology in general, and therefore the general intellect of the populous is furthered rather than hindered. Technology only becomes truly obsolete if the new technology completely eliminates the need for the old. Example: wooden graphite pencils. Even in this age of computers, we still use them. Why? Because they have their place; even stone engraving has its place still, but it’s a specialized niche (gravestones, buildings, etc.).

Bob says:

Yes. Lack of knowledge does make one dumber.

Knowledge is a component of intelligence. The faculty of reason alone is practically useless.

Its often better to know that something is, then to have the ability to arrive at that understanding independently.

For example, I’d rather my child KNOW that if they touch something hot they will get burned then have the ABILITY to understand thermodynamics.

DJ (profile) says:

Re: Yes. Lack of knowledge does make one dumber.

I wouldn’t. I’d rather have my son understand thermodynamics. You touch a burner, you get burned, you know you don’t want to touch that burner anymore. A freaking hamster can figure that one out. Understanding thermodynamics requires higher intelligence, and someone with higher intelligence is far more valuable to society than a hamster.

jerome (profile) says:

Plato was partially right... but one should not fear new communication technologies

Plato was right to a certain extent; use of writing has weakened the pressure to remember quantities of text. In ancient Greece competitions where mostly illiterate singers would perform on thousands of verses from Iliad and Odyssey. The hypothesis that the ability to memorize hours of spoken text was linked to illiteracy (or blindness) is known for long time but it has been experimentally tested relatively recently; in the Balkans a tradition of epic poem singers existed for centuries, and until the 20th Century some poets were still singing the famous poem relating the Battle of Kosovo (14th Century). It has been shown that those poets would lose their ability to memorize when learning to read and write. Eventually, with the progress of education in the past decades, such memory performers have completely disappeared.

(I might find again scholar references to these claims whenever I pass by home country.)

So yes, the pencil made us “lose” part of the abilities that it superseded, but the fear is pointless, because it juste gave us the opportunity to allocate our memory to different activities.

(To avoid misunderstanding: I totally agree with Michael Masnik’s conclusions.)

Jenn says:

An addendum to Jerome

Agreed. Wholeheartedly. As a current student, the pencil does not make me dumber, it allows me to use my brain to manipulate reams of information as opposed to simply holding it all in place.

That being said, rote memorization is virtually extinct, which had its uses. I cannot simply recall the structures of various biological molecules, but I most certainly can rotate that structure in my mind, and imagine the interactions of surface protrusions with its environment…

With the information easily available, the question really becomes a matter of debate: what’s the best use of an individual’s brain capacity?

Adam Bauer (user link) says:


there once was a generation of mathematicians wringing their hands in consternation because the new kids were not learning the traditional math. These upstarts were only interested in some new fangled fad from the East. The fact that you can neither multiply nor divide in Roman Numerals did not even register with them.

New and improved pencils add to our capabilities.

Mark Bauerlein says:

How easy it is to pass off skepticism about digital advents with labels “moral panic” and the like. How about considering some of the evidence that skeptics bring forward such as trends in reading and writing test scores, remediation enrollments in college, money businesses spend on in-house writing training, leisure time use trends, etc.?

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