One More Time With Feeling: No, The Internet Is Not Making Us Dumber

from the no-more-think-good dept

Google is making us stupid. Smartphones have ruined the art of conversation. Video games make you violent. There's simply no limitation to the number of people quick to assume that technology is to blame for long-standing human foibles despite generations of historical evidence to the contrary. There is, however, usually a very sharp limit to the science actually supporting these positions. At the forefront of this yeah I bet that's probably true movement has long sat Susan Greenfield, whose expertise in the field of "justify-my-Luddite-beliefs-at-all-costs" has gained endless media attention.

Through media appearances, books and interviews, Greenfield has long pushed the idea that technology as a whole is effectively "rewiring" our brains and altering fundamental cognitive patterns -- for the worse. She's quick to rant against Twitter, complain that video games trigger violent behavior, and has been at the forefront of claims that Google is rewiring the very fabric of memory. For just as many years we've pointed out how this isn't really true; because our brains have adapted to the increased efficiency of having technology around doesn't mean they don't work as hard as ever (well, most of us).

Still, people love Greenfield because she justifies existing beliefs that we were so much better off when technology wasn't so pervasive. The problem is, as a group of actual scientists recently pointed out, the data Greenfield claims supports these positions doesn't say anything close to what she claims it does. These neuro-scientists have, apparently, had enough of the media ignoring this fact:
"As scientists working in mental health, developmental neuropsychology, and the psychological impact of digital technology, we are concerned that Greenfield’s claims are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and poor quality studies, and are misleading to parents and the public at large."
Not only that, the researchers note, the evidence she often points to actually disproves many of her claims. Like Greenfield's argument that social networking hinders social interaction and interpersonal relationships. Actually, researchers Bishop, Bell and Przybylski note that quite often, social networking can have the complete opposite and often positive effect:
"Greenfield claims that social networking sites could negatively affect social interaction, interpersonal empathy, and personal identity.1 However, the bulk of research does not support this characterisation. With regard to social interaction and empathy, adolescents’ use of social networking sites has been found to enhance existing friendships and the quality of relationships, although some individuals benefit more than others. The general finding is that those who use social networks to avoid social difficulties have reduced wellbeing, while use of social networks to deal with social challenges improves outcomes."
How about Greenfield's claims that using Google negatively impacts memory? Not so, state the researchers, who point out that the human mind is simply adapting to the situation at hand, and it's just as flexible, responsive and amazing as it has always been:
"Another claim made by Greenfield is that reliance on search engines and surfing the internet could result in superficial mental processing at the expense of deep knowledge and understanding. There is indeed evidence that when people know they can access information through search engines they are less likely to remember the content. However, this effect applies to many situations and is not restricted to the use of technology; for instance, people who work in teams are less likely to remember facts when others hold the information, which allows for more efficient use of mental resources. This is a well studied and adaptive form of thinking called transactive memory."
That's not to say there aren't conversations to be had about the negative impact of technology. The researchers are quick to note we still need to have vigilant conversations about privacy and safety online, etiquette of technology use, and about issues like childhood obesity (unhelped by unpoliced hours playing Playstation 4). Unfortunately, the researchers note that Greenfield's superficial analysis and cult-like celebrity status is obscuring these more important conversations, while only acting to feed the fear of Luddites everywhere.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    coward (anon), 11 Sep 2015 @ 8:43am

    Rebuttal

    I was going to post a rebuttal, but I couldn't figure out a Google query.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Doug (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 8:49am

    Facts vs. problem solving

    In my programming job the internet has allowed me to focus very much more on problem solving than "fact hoarding". I do not need to commit to memory the details of every programming language or API I use. I do not need to memorize the implementation or details of every algorithm or mathematical theorem I need. I can operate at a higher level, solving problems. When I need details, I can find them much faster than I ever could in any reference book.

    I'm so much more efficient, and so much more able to learn new skills, now than I was before the internet.

    College taught me how to learn and the internet lets me learn at a rate that college could never support.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Crowad, 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:53am

      Re: Facts vs. problem solving

      It sounds like what you've learned is how to search, not necessarily the subjects you're searching.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Doug (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 10:03am

        Re: Re: Facts vs. problem solving

        Not at all. I learned how to learn and the internet puts at my fingertips loads of information from which to learn. Of course I'm searching for info on things I don't know. They're new. That's why I need to learn them.

        At the same time, there are things I never plan to learn/memorize well, because I don't use them often enough, and plain searching (in the sense I think you meant it) is more than efficient enough.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 10:33am

        Re: Re: Facts vs. problem solving

        Back in the days when documentation came in printed form, computer system dehumanization was often measured in feet of shelf space needed to store it. A necessary skill was the ability to locate the relevant page to answer a question quickly. The Internet makes such searching much much quicker.
        Using such information requires a good grasp of the fundamentals of programming, and how the languages being used work, but expecting someone to remember the details of thousands of function, and any gotchas with the parameters to those function is unrealistic, and programmers that try often end up with difficult debugging problems, because something does not behave as they expect it to.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Paul Renault (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 8:53am

    A link to the editorial in question at BMJ. (I have no idea why the DOI link is behind a paywall.)

    The debate over digital technology and young people
    http://press.psprings.co.uk/bmj/august/technology.pdf

    / my google-fu is strong

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    kallethen, 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:00am

    The internet isn't making us dumber, it just makes it easier for the dumb people to be heard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:04am

    Does the fact that she's a Baroness from Oxford have something to do with the fact that she wants to preserve the old order?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:07am

    ...Greenfield's argument that social networking hinders social interaction and interpersonal relationships...

    So does addiction to (insert object or phobia here).

    Anything can become addicting when the addiction subject controls and/or dominates one's life. There are a few people who simply can't disconnect from electronics, whether it's social media, online gaming, or anything else. Not to mention employers who require their employees to be accessible at all times via cel phone or email. If one cannot be without internet access no matter the platform for even one whole day they need to step back and assess their life, even if it means asking for help.

    Greenfield's arguments are off the planet, but if she's targeting addiction more power to her for drawing attention to it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:11am

    Hmph.

    This Jenny-come-lately obviously hasn't read my pamphlet on the dangers of all the electricity leaking out of all those unplugged outlets. That's what's really rotting the brains of our precious precious children.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:23am

    Take This Comment For Instance

    Every village has an idiot, some more than one. I can see where some might think that the Internet turns people into idiots, It really just creates a greater range to the idiots that have always been tucked away in villages everywhere.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:47am

    Before the internet it was books in libraries that made me dumber

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Doug (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 9:55am

      Re: Libraries

      No kidding. Books required you to go to a place that actively discouraged social interaction ("Shhh!"). They dedicated *whole buildings* to those places.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 10:24am

    Breaking news!

    "Are indexes keeping your children from learning books word for word? Find out at 6 on Weasel News!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 11 Sep 2015 @ 10:54am

    as sum one who reads alot of forums, i think ur wrong. sure the internet let's us acess lot's of information but most people dont seem to be asborbing it. there writing seems to get worser every day. infact i get yelled at when i try to point out common grammer mistakes and im told that it doesn't matter because the net is just a casual place and as long as they can get they're message acrossed it doesn't matter if they dont write in prefect english.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    FobbingMobius, 11 Sep 2015 @ 10:55am

    Scholars vs hollers

    Which do you think the average American is going to take the time to parse and understand?

    "Video games make our children more violent."

    (5.7 grade equivalency reading level; Flesch-Kincaid Readability score of 66.8, on a scale from 1-100 where higher is easier to read.)

    or

    "As scientists working in mental health, developmental neuropsychology, and the psychological impact of digital technology, we are concerned that Greenfield’s claims are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and poor quality studies, and are misleading to parents and the public at large."

    (28th grade equivalency reading level; Flesch-Kincaid Readability score -5.4 - on a scale from 0-100, where higher is more readable)

    If you want the average American to understand, use small words and short sentences.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 7:40pm

      Re: Scholars vs hollers

      This is why I don't use grammar checkers anymore. Every time I ran my writing through them, they'd tell me to dumb down my writing... which made me sound like an idiot before I reached a level the checker approved of. Seriously, they're apparently tuned for 11 year-olds. Just type anything at a college level and look at all the red highlighted text.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Stephen, 12 Sep 2015 @ 2:58am

        Re: Re: Scholars vs hollers

        This is why I don't use grammar checkers anymore.
        Never mind grammar checkers! I keep finding recently printed books (not to mention web articles!) which have clearly not been properly proofread other than to run a spellcheck program over them. These are the ones which offer such sentences as "He went to the seen of the grime."

        See, for example:

        https://cmdrysdale.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/the-curse-of-the-spell-checker-strikes-again/

        And to think there are still some people who think technology is NOT making people dumb.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 12 Sep 2015 @ 6:07am

          Re: Re: Re: Scholars vs hollers

          And to think there are still some people who think technology is NOT making people dumb.

          That is a big fat correlation/causation error (you did read the article didn't you?). You see someone doing something dumb with technology and assume the technology caused the dumbness. A hundred years ago that person might have had trouble figuring out how to use a plow.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2015 @ 10:58am

    Didn't people say the same about books. About how they would make people dumber as they wouldn't need to memorize all that knowledge that was passed by mouth and how oral traditions would be lost?

    I bet they said something like that. Humanity isn't dumber because you can't make dumber something that is already dumb.

    And these comments show us clearly how dumb humans are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 12:15pm

      Re:

      Didn't people say the same about books. About how they would make people dumber as they wouldn't need to memorize all that knowledge that was passed by mouth and how oral traditions would be lost?

      Probably said the same thing about cave paintings.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 11:43am

    Technology is evil!

    For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

    Socrates to Phaedrus, regarding the written word.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 11 Sep 2015 @ 12:16pm

      Re: Technology is evil!

      you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction

      We can't have people reading without being told what to think about it!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Stephen, 12 Sep 2015 @ 2:40am

    These Guys Need to Get Out More

    Like Greenfield's argument that social networking hinders social interaction and interpersonal relationships. Actually, researchers Bishop, Bell and Przybylski note that quite often, social networking can have the complete opposite and often positive effect...
    Bishop, Bell and Przybylski need to get out more. If they did they might notice all those social networking people wandering the streets like zombies, noses stuck in their smartphones rather than watching where they're going!

    Presumably, the "positive effect" that this will have will be that most of the dumb bunnies who can't be bothered to look where they're going will (eventually) be weeded out of the gene pool through interacting socially with car or a bus.

    Then there was the time I happened to be a cinema some months back with 30 or so other people. When the house lights dimmed to start up the ads maybe 90% of those 30 people took out their smartphones and began tapping away. (You could tell who was doing that because of the betraying glow from the phone screens!)

    In other words rather than interacting socially with their dates they were choosing to interact with someone else via the Net.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 12 Sep 2015 @ 12:31pm

      The strange continuing propagation of crosswalk readers.

      I should note that all the crosswalk newspaper readers of the 20th century were insufficiently weeded out by cars and busses until they evolved into crosswalk phone / tablet readers.

      Yes, we're told to stay alert in public, but strangely enough the predator we're told to watch for is the pickpocket, not the speeding bus.

      The thing I notice as a transit rider (and to be fair this is entirely anecdotal) is that riders do interact more, just with people they want to interact with. Friends, boyfriends, family. So there are more smiling faces and laughter. There's also the occasional snarling and rageful thumb-punching at the touchscreen when someone has mobilized their household contention.

      As for our dates, maybe I never got the cue. When I was single, the person I want to interact with most on a date was was in my face (on good dates right in my face) so the siren call of the cell phone just failed to have that allure. Again, it's only anecdotal.

      Ma Bell was proud (in the early 20th century) that Americans were trained to answer the phone even during sex (which Europeans were never willing to do). So yeah, we may just have a generational duty to respond to social telecommunications.

      I certainly check who texted me and about what, even when in a social setting, such as a restaurant, but that's because there are people who depend on me for emotional support when crises emerge. My friends and partner find the interruptions tolerably infrequent.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mean Old Codger, 13 Sep 2015 @ 8:31am

    Deficate ONE

    The internet is making a lot of people meaner. Governments are among the most paranoid entities known to mankind. Having this ability to invade the private lives of its subjects, these "people" just makes me want to deficate and puke chunks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.