Are We Really Dumber than Victorians? Not So Fast

Jun 14, 2013

There was a time in my life when I had scores of phone numbers engraved in my brain. I could pick up a phone and dial numbers from memory.

Now that I’ve moved on to an iPhone 5 after the breakup of my years-long marriage to a Nokia flip phone, (you know, the “connecting people”) I’m having a much harder time remembering these numbers as well as pins and passwords (and no, senility has not kicked in).

I’ve also heard similar stories from family, friends and colleagues: nobody seems to be able to remember phone numbers anymore, because our trusty mobile devices do that for us. Why bother? We have too much else to worry about.

TechnologyOf course, this phenomenon leads to all sorts of hand-wringing, both in private and public discourse, about whether or not the Internet and the many devices that give us access to it are making us dumber. It’s a question that bears asking when you consider the rise of Honey Boo Boo and the Kardashians.

I inevitably ended up asking myself the phone number question after reading an article on Big Think about a recent study by European researchers which suggests that people living in the Victorian era had faster reaction times and were, therefore, smarter than those of us alive today.

Hhhhm, I’m not so sure about that.

When technologies such as radio and television came out, there was much debate over how they would dumb us down. The same question has been asked about the Internet itself and Google in particular. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you just Google it right?

I’m not saying there’s nothing to this idea. In fact, I think that in a certain way we may be a little dumber – or perhaps less prone to critical and independent thought. And the Internet definitely has had something to do with it.

We’re living in an age of information inundation and coming at us from every direction. Being so busy, we’re rarely taking the time to read things, slowly or carefully. We just skim information and move on.

And that’s exactly my point about the Big Think article. Because there are also studies suggesting that, today, we are smarter than ever. So which is it?

The answer is: there is no black-or-white answer. We have access to more information than ever, which can make us smarter, but we have plenty of devices that do our thinking for us. Which can certainly make us feel and act dumber – but what if mobile phones went away? We would eventually go back to remembering numbers out of necessity.

The takeaway? No matter what technology we have in front of us, there is no substitute for plain old common sense and critical thinking. And I don’t need a book, tablet or smartphone to tell me that!

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