Genevieve Roberts, Google Effect: is technology making us stupid?

The perennial question: are our tools making us dumber? Since Socrates made this argument in ancient Greece (regarding the impact of written language on people’s ability to remember poetry), the technological revanchists continue to rant about civilization sliding into the abyss because of comic books, video games, the Internet, and our mobile devices.

Genevieve Roberts returns to these well-plowed fields:

A recent study (you’ve probably forgotten it by now) suggests 90 per cent of us are suffering from digital amnesia. More than 70 per cent of people don’t know their children’s phone numbers by heart, and 49 per cent have not memorised their partner’s number. While those of us who grew up in a landline-only world may also remember friends’ home numbers from that era, we are unlikely to know their current mobiles, as our phones do the job. The Kaspersky Lab concludes we don’t commit data to memory because of the “Google Effect” — we’re safe in the knowledge that answers are just a click away, and are happy to treat the web like an extension to our own memory.

Dr Maria Wimber, lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, worked with the internet security firm on their research. She believes the internet simply changes the way we handle and store information, so the Google Effect “makes us good at remembering where to find a given bit of information, but not necessarily what the information was. It is likely to be true that we don’t attempt to store information in our own memory to the same degree that we used to, because we know that the internet knows everything.”


But is this making us more stupid? Anthropologist Dr Genevieve Bell, a vice-president at Intel and director of the company’s Corporate Sensing and Insights Group, believes not. She says technology “helps us live smarter” as we’re able to access answers. “Being able to create a well-formed question is an act of intelligence, as you quickly work out what information you want to extract and identify the app to help achieve this. To me, this suggests a level of engagement with the world that’s not about dumbness.” She gives the example of a new mother trying to work out whether their baby not sleeping is bad — and when to start worrying. “These are all questions that technology may be able to address quicker than calling your own parents,” she says. “This isn’t making consumers more dumb, instead it’s helping them to think smarter.”She believes our biggest concern should be our mindset towards technology. “My suspicion is it isn’t that the use of technology is making us dumber; instead it’s a very human set of preoccupations and anxieties,” she says. “Ultimately it’s the anxiety about what technology means for us, what it means for our humanity, our bodies, our competency — and what it means to have new technologies in some ways threaten some of those things.”

Of course, Nicholas Carr and Andrew Keen are rolled out of the past century to make obligatory remarks about the shallowness of our thinking, our lamentable tendency to multitask, and our flaccid minds. Thanks, guys. You can go back to foaming at the mouth, now.

Genevieve Roberts, Google Effect: is technology making us stupid?

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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