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5 Electronic Technologies That Are Making Us Dumber

Electronics has been a tremendous boon to society, but it’s also ringing some alarm bells.

Electronics is a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. Electronics has had such a positive impact on our lives that it is difficult to measure: radio, TV, computers, cell phones, satellites, and too many others to name. You know what they are.

But there is growing evidence, some visible and some not so visible, that electronics is making us lazy, dumb, stressed, and otherwise unhealthy. Most are not so aware of it. The whole scenario is a bit chilling to consider.

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s Wall Street Journal article of October 7th“How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds (paywall).” Carr is also the author of the book The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010), which goes into great detail about the negative impact of computers and smartphones on our society.

The smartphone may be the best electronic device ever developed. It is our constant do-everything companion and has become the one thing most people cannot do without. I like the way Carr refers to it in his article:

“Their extraordinary usefulness gives them an unprecedented hold on our attention and vast influence over our thinking and behavior. So what happens to our minds when we allow a single tool such dominion over our perception and cognition?

“As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests the intellect weakens.”

Keep that in mind, as it applies to other technologies beyond smartphones.

With everyone constantly staring at a smartphone screen, it has to have some impact—notably, less person-to-person contact and a mind that is filled with whatever is on the web. Of particular note, it appears that we are being brainwashed by social media. Not always good, in my opinion.

An Oct. 16thUSA Today article by Bill Ervolino, “Why we’re exhausted: stress and social media are taking a toll,” blames social media for a new kind of illness. In speaking of young adults, Ervolino quotes psychoanalyst Patricia Bratt:

“Social media has created a new sense of impulsivity and urgency, it can make them overwhelmed by what is happening in the world, and all these factors can be fatiguing and can impact how they sleep.”

Ervolino goes on to quote Carlos Rueda of St. Joseph’s Healthcare System:

“And, of course, people are constantly receiving stimuli from their computers and phones…This is also creating constant stress that disrupts sleep and disrupts our circadian rhythm.”

Another USA Today article from the same day, “Instagram: Why your kids love to use it,” spotlights some negative effects of the popular service. Instagram is said to have more than 800 million users and is especially popular with teens and young adults. Instagram lets you post photos with captions, and almost anything goes. According to Molina:

“Specific to Instagram, a study was released in May claiming the app was the worst for your mental health, claiming it fuels loneliness and anxiety as well as reinforces negative body images.”

In fairness, the inventors of Instagram appear to have had no idea of these unintended consequences. And that seems to be a common outcome of much of technology today.

All of this got me to thinking about what other electronic technologies have had a negative impact. There are several others that have a good news-bad news quality.

Like TV. Television has changed our lives significantly in the way it has influenced us politically and tells us what and how to think based on the opinions of others. And just think of the impact that the advertising has had. Furthermore, I suspect that all the bad, insipid TV shows have an effect as well, and probably not what we would call a good one. Is there too much sex and violence? Apparently not for many, as people love and watch all that stuff. They wouldn’t produce it if it didn’t sell.

TV can also be a positive medium, with the ability to be entertaining and educational. It also serves us well in weather reporting, news, sports, and (occasionally) even history, music, and culture. Still, TV has created a generation of couch potatoes who think less for themselves and simply adopt the latest sound and video bites as truth and reason.

Video gaming is another technology that has produced a massive population of players who would rather be playing risque and violent games than socializing or doing anything else. Do video games make one dumber? Maybe dumber is not the right word: introverted and antisocial, perhaps. Is that healthy? Who am I to judge? Video games are a $100 billion+ business and they won’t go away, but are we better off with them? Or are we just getting dumber? Oh, and by the way: Will virtual reality make them worse?

How about artificial intelligence (AI)? AI, after all, is software that thinks for us. It encapsulates knowledge and multiplies our ability to reason and make decisions. In short, it benefits us in multiple ways. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we can become reliant on AI and stop thinking for ourselves in some applications. The less we exercise our brain, the dumber we get. We lose the thinking ability edge. Will AI and robots make us lazy and dumb, too?

Finally, self-driving cars are the ultimate electronic platform that may make us dumber and lazier. They are not formally with us yet, but seem to be on a path to replace at least some of our standard vehicles. Maybe not all of us will get dumber, but many will submit to it and lose the skill and knowledge that it takes to drive a vehicle. Lives may be saved but many will be dumber.

In a recent Washington Post piece, columnist George F. Will pondered whether the self-driving electric vehicles of the near future will have a similar negative impact on customers. He says this of what he calls smartcars:

“They will be designed for customers who in 2006 did not know that soon they would not be able to imagine living without the smartphones that in 2006 they could not imagine.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be worried about all of this as we are already on that slippery slope to dumbness. Electronics is a good and positive thing, but we are just ignoring the downsides and going along with it. Those of you designing electronics can determine what the products do, but you cannot control how they are used. Customers do not always know what they want. But engineers know what is possible and can create something customers can come to want.

The unintended consequences are almost impossible to predict, but let’s keep on creating and think about how we do not generate more dumbness.

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