(Original posting date: 16 March 2015)
Throughout human history, pretty much every development or invention that increased our information storage and management capabilities has had its loud and voracious naysayers.
Around 370 BCE, both Socrates and Plato were already badmouthing the written word as inherently inferior to in-person verbal dialogue. The printing press, typewriter, telegraph, telephone, and Internet have all been targeted as the presumed bringers of universal intellectual decay.
So it comes as no surprise that when Web search engines appeared on the scene — to organize Internet-based information and make it widely available — much the same tired old attack arguments were trotted out by the usual suspects, in the form of multitudinous “Google Is making Us Stupid!” articles and similar varieties of vacuous commentaries.
The crux of most arguments against having quick access to information seem to largely parallel the attempts not that many years ago (and in some venues, still continuing) to routinely ban calculators from physics and other similar subject tests, on the grounds that not doing the math by hand was somehow — perhaps in a moral judgment “You’ll go to hell!” kind of sense — horribly cheating.
But unless the test you’re taking is specifically one for mathematical skills, the rote manual calculation process is practically worthless compared with developing the necessary skills to actually analyze a problem and determining appropriate methodologies for reaching correct answers. Even a specific answer itself may often be far less relevant in many contexts than development and analysis of appropriate problem solving processes.
One wonders how many potentially brilliant would-be physicists with wonderful analytic skills were sidelined into other professions simply due to not having a knack for manual math.
With the rise of the mobile Net comes the latest incarnation of this twisted saga, the “Are smartphones making us stupid?” meme. There seems to be a new version of this one somewhere pretty much every few days.
In a very real way the term “smartphone” in this context is being used by detractors largely as a proxy for saying “Portable Google” — as a wireless retread of search engine criticisms.
However, in this case the critics are even farther off the mark than usual, because smartphones not only don’t reduce our intelligence, they can be our saviors as we age.
Physiological studies show that our memory for much specific data usually begins to decline at the ripe old age of — 20. Yeah, pretty depressing. But in contrast, our reasoning and analytic skills can in many cases continue developing throughout our lives without limit, as we integrate ever more experiences into the mix.
And here is where the smartphone (along with the vast information ecosystem that supports it) really becomes something of a technological miracle.
For there on your belt or in your purse is a little box that can act as an almost limitless adjunct to your own memory, to your own brain.
Type on it, talk to it. Ask it questions, note its reminders. Smartphones can provide us with very much the exact kind of information that our brains gradually become less adept at recalling past age 20 or so.
To argue that it’s somehow wrong, somehow cheating or unethical or unnatural, to use these devices and their supporting infrastructures in this way, is itself as dumb and stupid as forcing a potentially brilliant future physicist to drop out of school because you wouldn’t let them use a calculator.
Obviously, for smartphones to be most useful at all ages, issues of accessibility become paramount — matters for ground-up consideration, not after-the-fact excuses. Input and output methodologies, font sizes and contrast, all become especially important, since our vision typically begins to decline at the same young age as our memory. These are all relatively straightforward user interface design issues though, given the will to deal with them appropriately.
It would probably be a pretty tough slog to get Plato comfortable with smartphones. On the other hand, he’s quoted as saying: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” And especially when it comes to smartphones and the immense value they can bring to us throughout our lives, only a fool would argue with Plato about that.
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.