Your mobile phone is making us stupid

Whilst sitting and having a quite read the other day I happened across a thought which made me pause:

Not only may our natural capacities, like brute strength and visual acuity, be weakening, but our brains too may, after a long period of evolutionary expansion, be at last growing smaller. Researchers like Peter Brown calculate that our brains shrank on average by 9.5 percent in the last 10,000 years alone (more, as a proportion, than our bodies, for which he recorded the 7 percent drop already mentioned). Further back, 100,000 years ago, we find that the Neanderthals had, on average, bigger brains than ours.

Timothy Taylor
The Artificial Ape{{1}}

[[1]]Timothy Taylor (2010), The Artificial Ape, Palgrave Macmillan[[1]]

Which is really a quite interesting idea. After all, pundits have been arguing for a while that technology has been making us smart or stupid, depending on their preference. One one side we have the Clay Shirkies and Ray Kurzweils of the world: boosters who think that technology is making us smarter and hope that the singularity{{2}} is near. On the other we have the likes of Nicholas Carr who takes that opposite view, fearing that our interlectual tide is going out{{3}}.

[[3]]The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains[[3]]

It’s not the first time this has been debated. Socrates had a well publicised aversion to reading and never wrote anything down{{4}}. He argued that true understanding could only come from dialogue. (We know this, of course, as Socrate’s student Plato chose to write down Socrates’ thoughts for posterity.)

[[4]]Socrates at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy[[4]]

Most of the arguments around the idea of technology making us stupid centre on our ability to access facts. Clay Shirky et al see Google as a good thing, extending our powers or recall. If you can describe something, then Google can probably find it for you. Twitter might even help information, information which you didn’t even know that you needed, find you. Others see this it as a bad thing, as the deluge of information might be eroding our ability for quiet contemplation, enabling us to constantly distract ourselves as we peruse just one more fact rather than spending our time fruitfully thinking new and ever more valuable thoughts.

I found Mr Taylor’s take on the argument very interesting. His view was that our brains had shrunk, not because we didn’t need to remember as much stuff anymore, but because the need for us to be creative problem solvers had eased. We’ve built a soft and comforting environment around ourselves – with our air conditioners, central heating and pizza delivery – so we just don’t have to deal with the environment anymore. We’re a bit like the boy in the bubble{{5}}, watching the real world pass us by, preferring our buffed and tanned Second Life avatars and manageable virtual problems to the challenges of hunting down enough wooly mammoth to feed the kids.

[[5]]Slideshow: Sad Story of ‘Boy in the Bubble’ at Wired[[5]]

If it’s the pressure to solve pressing problems, and not our ability to remember facts, which drives intelligence{{6}}, then we might have something to worry about, as our ability to creatively solve problems is the skill we need the most. The last time I typed “cure for cancer” into Google it didn’t deliver much hope. I’m not sure the Neanderthals spent much time pondering the eternal verities or trying to remember where to find a handy jawbone, but they did spend a lot of time trying to stay alive when compared to us and our modern lifestyles. We forget, the steam engine was invented by someone welding bits of steel together while trying to solve problem, while thermodynamics (the theory explaining it) came afterwards.

[[6]]Intelligence, that is, in terms of our ability to solve problems, which is a bit different to what IQ tests measure, as they focus on counting how many cultural norms and received wisdom we have absorbed. IQ scores have been rising, not because we’re getting better at solving problems, but because we getting better a teaching and testing cultural norms.[[6]]

If we take Mr Taylor’s lead, then it’s technology’s role in insulating us from the environment we live in that we should be worrying about the most. The caveman was focused on staying alive, and the challenge presented by the ever changing environment he lived in meant that he needed a brain 9.5 percent larger than our own just to survive. We just don’t face the same challenges today, with our climate control tuned to 21°C and the pizza delivery on the speed dial.

Neanderthal had brains 9.5% larger than Homo erectus

1. Chimpanzee, 2. Australopithecine, 3. Homo erectus, 4. Neanderthal, 5. Co-Magnon

Mobile phones might represent the pinnacle of our quest to eliminate environmental uncertainties, as they erase the last self reliance we previously need to get by. It’s this self reliance that provides us with, and even forces us to solve, problems. When I was young, for example, the first trip into the city on your own was a big deal as you would be out of reach of mum and dad. The usual response was to give you money for the phone, and tell you to head for the police if there was a problem, however if something went wrong you had to solve the problem on your own. Today, kids taking the same trip have a phone and can call mum and dad for help whenever they need, and they don’t need to be as self reliant.

Which comes back to that idea of information overload that concerns Mr Shirky and Mr Carr. I’ve never been, nor am I now, worried about too much information. I’m not even that worried about the distractions of living with the Internet. The real problem – as I’ve said before{{7}} – is the ability to focus on the problems we need to solve. We can choose to be proactive or reactive. If we sit there trying to sift through the mountains of information available today then we will always be overwhelmed as there’s so many good ideas out there that it’s hard to decide what to react to. However, if we have a focus, a long term problem which we’re working over and exploring each angle of, then we’re a bit like that Neanderthal, using his bigger brain to reach out for a handy jawbone and find a new use for it. There’s lots of suitable jawbones within reach, the challenge is to understand how they might fit into the solution we need.

[[7]]The Art of Random @ PEG[[7]]

I suppose the best way to view this post is as an argument for the idea of sun-shaped people{{8}}. One key lesson from evolution is that specialists die out when the environment around them changes, making their carefully crafted skill irrelevant. Today’s (business) environment changes pretty quickly, and many of the specialist skills of the past are rapidly becoming redundant. We’re also finding that the specialists which replace them have increasingly short half lives. T-shaped folk (folk with deep experience in one domain and some knowledge of others) fare little better, as they are still focused on facts – understanding the common values and received wisdom of a domain, often racing to keep up with the fashion industry which “best practice” often devolves into. Sun-shaped people, on the other hand, have a core focus, and problem which they’re working over and examining from different angles during the full length and breadth of their careers, grabbing jawbones and other handy tools as needed. Perhaps there’s a bit of Neanderthal in them after all.

[[8]]The Sun-Shaped Individual @ PEG[[8]]

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