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The BIG question: Is tech making us all dumb?
Fri, 26th Aug 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Anyone who has spent time online must've asked themselves this question at least once: “When did people become so stupid???

We've all seen idiotic posts on social media. Then there's the Youtube clips of people doing things that are only describable as stupid. I won't even mention Brexit or dare I say it, Trump.

The Age of Idiocracy

In the cult-hit film Idiocracy, Joe Bowers takes part in a military experiment.  This has left him hibernating for centuries, during which the average intelligence of humanity has taken a turn for the worse. Awakening, Bowers finds he's one of the smartest people on earth. Idiocracy might be a good giggle, but its screenwriter, Etan Cohen recently tweeted “I never expected #idiocracy to become a documentary.

So are we entering an age of Idiocracy? Is technology making people stupid?

Looking at recent events, you'd remiss for not wondering. Despite warnings of the economic and political carnage from exiting the EU, millions of Brits voted to do just that. You could argue that is easily explained -  they're British. I guess the same logic is applicable to huge numbers behind Donald Trump?

Could it be that technology has blunted our ability to think critically? Has our unquestioning consumption of sound bites from the evening news allowed idiocracy to creep up?

Is it that instead of thinking, we're reaching for Google? Let's face it, tech makes life so much easier. Instead of memorising phone numbers I store them on my phone. Instead of getting lost (something which I consider my special super power), my GPS gets me there with time to spare.

In both instances no brain cells got harmed by me thinking. Entering said phone numbers or the destination into my GPS is something I do on autopilot.

Some may argue that humanity is becoming terrible at memorising stuff (I know I am). But does it equate into humanity becoming more stupid?

Trouble is that reason and deduction take far too much time in a time-poor world.

Good England

Looking online, it isn't all that hard to see that text speak and predictive text is mangling English language in ways Shakespeare could've hardly imagined.

My reviewing of many different smartphones means that their predictive text doesn't get a chance to get to grips with my linguistic foibles. This sees it trashing Facebook posts and text messages. It has got so bad that my posts are more often a point of comedy than communication.

On Reddit, LinkedIn and other forums I'm amazed at how few people can write. Punctuation, grammatical style and flow seemingly eludes them. Many of the same people can knock out a bazillion SMS messages in femtoseconds.

Debate still rages about this one. Some argue that It is over simplifying the issue to blame SMS-speak. Many cite studies showing how SMS equates to improved reading, vocabulary etc. I counter that by citing how the US government spent US$171,000 on studies of how monkeys gamble. For every study they quote, there's a similar number of idiotic studies I can quote. All the debate aside, you only need to look online to see how spell checkers, predictive text and other grammatical crutches are perpetuating idiocracy.

So is Tech Making Us Stupid?

Then there's the perennial question – does Google make us stupid? Is our grazing of superficial bits of information online affecting our ability to develop in-depth knowledge?

It isn't just Google (even though they are such an easy target) that is dumbing us down. Smart devices are whittling away at our capacities to stay focused. Instead of taking time to ponder an issue, considering its merits and/or failings, our thoughts get derailed by smart devices alerting us that a Facebook contact has posted yet another cat picture (yes, the net is in fact cat-powered).

History is riddled with predictions on how innovations such as TV, the radio and even the print press will destroy us. Socrates must've had a bad day when he ironically wrote about how the written word was going to do us all in. Historical arguments aside, it doesn't seem all that difficult to argue how dipping into superficial articles online over their long form counterparts is impacting our ability to think critically.

Critics may argue that humanity is progressing faster now than ever before. We've explored the solar system, decoded the human genome and created Instagram. Outcomes from scientific research are increasing.

Despite achieving all that, how can you explain why so many Brits, aware of the socio-economic fallout voted to leave the EU? Why are so many Americans supporting Trump despite his bizarre xenophobic and misogynistic rants? And don't even get me started on his crazy hair. Or is it just that election slogans belted out as part of an evening news soundbite carry more weight than actual policy?

Some argue that technology isn't the real culprit, but that we should instead be taking a long hard look at the media.

The Role of Media

Several trends have combined as the media reacts to technology driven change. Newspapers are struggling to compete with online services such as Reddit or Twitter. Many in the US and UK have shut down their print operations.

Others are erecting pay-walls. Some have become reliant on driving page clicks to sell online advertising. This has seen many newspapers resorting to “click bait”. These are short catchy headlines designed to capture readers with attention spans of a fruit fly and get them clicking on the article. That the headlines rarely much to do with the actual contents of the article is beside the point.

Another more worrying trend is the celebrification of media. Just recently news that a Taylor Swift had undergone breast augmentation surgery made the front page of a prominent NZ online news site. Looming local government elections and the policy platforms of the various candidates wasn't published.

So is it any wonder that most Kiwis know more about US presidential candidates and their policies than those of local candidates whose decisions will have considerably more impact on their lives? Could it be that Humanity is experiencing a perfect storm? One consisting of technologically aided attention deficits and a lightweight media whose focus on profit has seen its role in society eroded?