Thursday, May 19, 2011

Calculators, Social Media and Dumbing The Human Brain.

Bill Keller, the editor of the New Times, has written an article in which he suggests modern technology is great for so many reasons and yet he fears it is dumbing us down. Here are some interseting quotes:

On Memory:
Joshua Foer’s... best seller “Moonwalking With Einstein” recalls... what we trade for progress. Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.

Then along came... Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse.
On Calculating Skills:
My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills.
On Navigations and Penmanship: 
Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship.
On Pattern Recognition:
Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

“Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens,” Bjork e-mailed me. “We are not recording devices.”
On Facebook:
Last week my wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter she could join Facebook. Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.
On Becoming Cyborgs While Outsourcing Our Brians:
“This is the story of the next half-century,” Foer told me, “as we become effectively cyborgs.”  Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. 
And Keller's Big Worry:
But before we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.... My inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.
Unfortunately I think he makes some good points.  On one hand these technologies make our life much easier and make things possible that would have never been possible without that same technology.  On the other, I fear relying too much on technology erodes at our basic intellectual faculties.

The other day a friend of mine said something like: "I could care less about studying philosophy. Who wants to sit around and do nothing except think about useless questions when we have TVs, Facebook and the internet in general which is actually fun."

Now, I am not trying to go onto some anti-technology rant. I love technology. But I think it is healthy to be aware of prices we may be paying to enjoy it. Losing math skills to calculators. Trading philosophy for watching 30 second sound bits on an internet site designed to telling you what you want to hear.  Having no need for a sharp memory when the information you need is just a few clicks away. Etc...



  1.  JS,
    I began with memory!  I could do multiplication and divisions in my head at a very young age!  Then came paper and pencil, then slide rule, then computers with Fortran, then that HP calculator with RPN, then computer with rudimentary spreadsheet while much of the career emphasis was in capturing data for analysis, initially, basics, then statistical, and then images and patterns.
    Of all these, I like the RPN calculator!  It makes me think what I need to do to solve a computational problem.  It also allows one to see interim results as one proceeds.  Today, I reluctantly like a spreadsheet as it also allows me to assess the impact of a choice in the algorithm but I find it too rigid.  May be there is an app on iPad that takes me back to paper and pencil.  I Like any computing that uses properly scaled graphics, but with PowerPoint, we now paint charts and graphs for visual impact, not conveying information and findings.  I am currently exploring WolframAlpha, link: 
    I am afraid that the cloud computing world may become like an Oracle or a deity of our ancient past, especially when it accept speech as input.  Somehow, the image that haunts me is that of the Time Machine movie, where, all well dressed mostly young people walk around until the call comes.

  2. Speaking of technology oracles, I know I can ask Google just about any question, and Google will find the right answer for me. :) 

  3.  I guess I have a completely different take on the issue. Don't get me wrong, I think these are important things to be aware of, but I think something significant is being overlooked.

    The truth is, there's just a whole lot more to know to be successful. I feel like these arguments are arguments about precision, and mastery of a single skill/item. But how have skills/items changed?

    For example. I work in control theory. Had I worked at the time of Bode (Bell labs 1930's) control theory was in its infancy. Bode had to know mathematics well. He had to know how to calculate in his head well. He had to know about Lyapunov, Euler, Newton, etc. But he was one of the grandfather's of classical control theory.

    Now consider Rudolf Kalman (grandfather or modern control theory in the 50's). He had to know mathematics well, had to know classical control well (be familiar with Bode's work) etc.

    Now look at me, in the current day. I have to know what Bode knew, what Kalman knew, mathematics, Lyapunov, Euler, Newton, optimal control, linear feedback control, nonlinear control, digital control, hybrid system control, sliding mode control, etc. etc. etc. To be an effective researcher in my niche, I have to know much much more information than Bode or Kalman had to know. They may have been smarter, and had more proficiency in a single area, but the truth is, I have to know so much more than they did just to even get STARTED in control theory, let alone do any research in the field.

    My point is that the world's knowledge is increasing at an extremely rapid rate. It has become many orders of magnitude more difficult to become proficient in any particular subject because there's so many things that have been done with new niche research areas being carved out every day. I could absolutely spend my time memorizing techniques for solving math problems in my head, but that is not an effective use of my time when I could read a paper that gives me yet another way of applying control theory.

    We are researching, in great depth, topics that our ancestors never even dreamed of, and yet we have to know approximately the same information that our ancestors knew (though perhaps not to the same depth).

  4. And I'm not suggesting you are saying technology never is bad by the way.  I'm just defending why I wrote the post in the first place: as a reminder that sometimes there are negative effects to technology. 

    Being a science-based blog I'm sure we are all very aware of the positive effects.

  5. Yes, I definitely agree there are downsides to technology. 

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  7. It has already begun! Incantations! Chants! Prayers!  May be even spells?

    A general observation: sci-math education and resulting technology increases ignorance of masses.

  8. I'm completely skeptical of the author, because this pattern often repeats itself; as children and young adults we adapt to the world we live in, not the world our parents lived in or wish were extant.  When I was little the best video game system was the original Nintendo.  It required lots of imagination because the graphics and physics of the game were so rudimentary.

    When WarCraft III came out in 2002 my girlfriend bought it for me.  She and my stepson, then 4 years old wound up playing it more than I did.  He learned to add and subtract by playing it, no formal instruction.

    While it's true there was a lot of oral tradition prior to the printing press, look and what kind of oral tradition it was.  All kinds of superstition, legend, mythology.  Entertaining stuff with plenty of insight into human nature and a basis for moral discussion, but hardly anything that raised standards of living.  I would argue, in fact, that it was the innovation of the printing press that led to the renaissance--literacy rates jumped from 2-3% of Europe's population to 20-30%.  Being able to disseminate information didn't eliminate superstition, but certainly overthrew it as a governing dynamic.

    I won't argue that much of the information that gets conveyed today isn't anything other than lowbrow tripe.  Only only needs to watch a few hours of daytime tv to see that.  It's my understanding that after Farnsworth invented the television, he decided it was too intellectually crippling to even allow in the house.  In the spirit of the thread, I'll quote Gene Roddenberry: "They say that ninety percent of TV is junk.  But, ninety percent of everything is junk."
    I'm usually loathe to agree when a person from an older generation criticizes the new-fangled thinkin's of the younger one.  The younger one is adapted to a technological milieu the older one is often still trying to understand.  You have a good point that we should take the time to think about how technology affects our thoughts and daily lives, what we gain and what we're losing. Our greatest challenge, in my mind, is to create as much social hay and future benefit from the many diverse mindsets that surround us.

  9. Thanks for the comment Cameron.  It is true we have to adapt to the world now, not the world then and so we really have to take that into account.  


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