Monday, September 10, 2007

what is the effect of technology, work, play and the media in general on our intelligence?

What is the effect of technology, work, play and the media in general on our intelligence?
Are we becoming smarter or dumber?
Are we living in some sort of Huxleyian "Brave New World" fog, endlessly distracted from the vital issues of our time? A western form of brainwashing? Contrast this with the Marxist view that the capitalist system creates its own gravediggers. Which is correct?
Or, are we becoming smarter but feel unfulfilled because we sense our lives could be much better?

Were people smarter when print was the dominant medium? (Postman and Gatto seem to be saying this)
What effects do TV, video games and the internet have on intelligence?
Is there a general upward trend in intelligence irrespective of media?
Are we getting smarter but still not utilising our full potential, that many are missing out on really important "higher learning" (whatever that is)?
Is the western canon important. Are there important texts or concepts that an educated person ought to read or develop? (Kay has articulated a list of "non universals")
Does the way in which work is organised make us less or more intelligent? (Braverman argued less; Adler argued more)
Are political influences, such as the politics of inclusion, making us dumber? (Furedi argues this)

"Dumbing down" is a popular phrase. Some people argue that things as varied as TV, playing video games, School and going to work dumb you down. But others argue that TV and video games can make you smarter. Some even argue that School can make you smarter but that is very uncool :-)

Anti elitism and egalitarianism are popular sentiments. But do these sentiments mask anti-intellectualism?

I'd like to explore these questions:

1. the effect of broad media changes on our intelligence
2. the effect of personal computing on our intelligence
3. the effect of the internet and "web2.0" on our intelligence
4. the effect of School on our intelligence
5. the effect of work on our intelligence
6. the effect of the politics of inclusion on our intelligence

(I might come back and update and / or annotate this from time to time)
I am currently reading some of this material and would be interested in the opinions of others who are reading it.

1. the effect of broad media changes on our intelligence

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) 116 reviews

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). (amazon)
Recommended by Mark Nichols in this substantial blog: Solid Thinking

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) 26 reviews

Johnson, Steven. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005) 70 reviews

2. the effect of personal computing on our intelligence

Kay, Alan. Some annotated references
"Point of view is worth 80 IQ points"
: At PARC we had a slogan: "Point of view is worth 80 IQ points." It was based on a few things from the past like how smart you had to be in Roman times to multiply two numbers together; only geniuses did it. We haven't gotten any smarter, we've just changed our representation system. We think better generally by inventing better representations; that's something that we as computer scientists recognize as one of the main things that we try to do.

another explanation
: what is special about the computer is analogous to and an advance on what was special about writing and then printing. It's not about automating past forms that has the big impact, but as McLuhan pointed out, when you are able to change the nature of representation and argumentation, those who learn these new ways will wind up to be qualtitatively different and better thinkers, and this will (usually) help advance our limited conceptions of civilization (source)

Some recent discussion about non universals and powerful ideas here

Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980) my review

Papert, Seymour. The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (1993)

Maxwell, John. Tracing the Dynabook: A Study of Technocultural Transformations (2006) link to pdf

3. the effect of the internet and web2.0 on our intelligence

Keen, Andrew. The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture (2007) 50 reviews

Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr (argues that net use works against deep, reflective reading; also discusses hisorical parallels)

Weinberger, David. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

video of a debate between Weinberger and Keen

Clay Shirky is my favourite informed commentator on these questions at the Many2Many site. For example, Andrew Keen: Rescuing 'Luddite' from the Luddites, is a critique of Keen

Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005) reviews

Locke, Chris; Searls, Doc; Weinberger, David. The ClueTrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual 95 theses

4. the effects of School on our intelligence

Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992). Gatto also has a web site, Challenging the Myths of Modern Schooling

the "outcomes based education literature
Berlach, Richard G., Outcomes-Based Education and The Death of Knowledge pdf
Killen, Roy. Outcomes-Based Education: Principles and Possibilities html

5. the effect of work on our intelligence

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974)

Adler, Paul. Technology and the Future of the Firm: A Schumpeterian Research Agenda (1985)

Langer, Albert. Technology and the Future of Work (1985)

Adler, Paul. Technology and Us (1986)

Adler, Paul. Technology and the Future of Work (1992) description

Postrel, Virginia. The Future and Its Enemies (1998) excerpts reviews

6. the effect of the politics of inclusion on our intelligence

Furedi, Frank. Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism (2004) reviews


lucychili said...

lots of interesting conversations happening around the scoping of discourse and impact of our choices of structures on our ability to make and learn and collaborate.

complexity, choice, time costs of choosing to engage more and ask more, blue pills and red pills. =)

Unknown said...

The Flynn effect is the rise of average Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test scores, an effect seen in most parts of the world, although at greatly varying rates. It is named after James R. Flynn, who did much to document it and promote awareness of its implications. This increase has been continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the present.

Anonymous said...

It's hard for me to say what the effect is. I think with modern society, it's technology, our safety systems, etc. it's easier to "fall down on the job" of developing one's mental abilities. Poverty and societal disorder can lead to this as well. I think hundreds or thousands of years ago, people acting the way they do today would be dead pretty quickly. Myself included. Despite not having as much knowledge available, and widespread illiteracy, I think in some ways our ancestors had more "street smarts" proportionately than we do today.

Part of the answer may lie in our educational system. Alan Kay used to talk about this. Maybe he still does. I remember one quote from him is at the turn of the 20th century 6th graders had to read McGuffey's Reader (may have mispelled it), which a lot of college students would have real trouble with today (the vocabulary).

What we have today that our ancestors didn't have is a greater understanding of our world scientifically, and culturally. This is largely due to discoveries within our lifetime. As far as knowing our heritage I'm not so sure.

All of the resources are there for us to become educated. It's not as if they've been taken away. It's a matter of whether we'll use them or not.

Bill Kerr said...

hi janet,

chomsky article: how propaganda works in the west

I read it, didn't like it. It's all about general principles and doesn't contain any specific examples, which I think you really have got to do for a real argument. If Chomksy is right then how come Bush's approval rating is so low?

thanks for the illich link

Illich wikipedia entry is here

I had a quick look but would need to read more Illich to understand him

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

thanks for the wikipedia flynn effect link

here's another from wired magazine by Steven Johnson the author of one of the books on my list: Everything Bad is Good for You

Flynn says measured IQ is increasing and that doesn't seem to be in dispute

People will argue about whether IQ measures real intelligence and will also argue about the reasons for increase in IQ

from wikipedia:
"Attempted explanations have included improved nutrition, a trend towards smaller families, better education, greater environmental complexity, and heterosis[6]. Another proposition is greater familiarity with multiple-choice questions and experience with brain-teaser IQ problems. [7]"

I think the Flynn effect is an important part of the conversation but there is still plenty to talk about

Anonymous said...


Re: Janet's links

I agree with your assessment of Chomsky's commentary. Chomsky is a linguist. I remember when I took a course in college on linguistics he was quoted often in my textbook. I'm sure he's good at what he does. What occurred to me when I read the article was that Chomsky was using his knowledge of language, and some about human cognition, to make a critique of our governmental system (he doesn't just complain about Republicans) and our society's relationship to it. I think Chomsky is a case of once they think they know one thing really well they think they know everything.

I thought one of the comments to his article was interesting. Someone said that Chomsky's critique of public perception in the U.S. doesn't hold water, because you'll find the same behavior pattern with people in Africa.

Re: Illich

I read into this article some, and at first it sounded good, but then he starts getting into his political philosophy, which is socialism, and it sounds like he believes technological resources should be redistributed equally. What's ironic is he says he wants to break up what he perceives as monolithic technological control by the wealthy. I don't know about you, but IMO having social control of technology just creates a monolithic structure of a different kind.

lucychili said...

Hi folks

My sense of both Chomsky and Illich is that they make excellent points about our sense of personal agency in context with our society. In an industrial model context we have an external motivator and set of systems which we map to for longer term benefits.

If we do not use the fence of organisation to scope who may participate we need a clear focus to define purpose and thereby to give us criteria for what to keep. Fit for purpose.

The difference is that if the person is choosing their engagement and participating in the discussions around criteria purpose and the fit of their own contributions they are participating in a more proactive way. Choosing both the systems and the individuality which fit this project.

These kinds of skills do not get developed as effectively when the scope is externally defined. When the correct outcome is determined by someone else.

Information and technology are currently modelled in a way which facilitates broadcast of ideas and scoped use of a tool or piece of content. It takes some effort to choose to be more than a consumer.
I feel that it is important for us to make those choices. To care whether we can make free participative communities with the technologies and models we adopt.

Ethics and Transparency In Politics said...

Great reading list!

I think Postman was careful not to say that people were smarter in the past. But contemporary media promotes shallow presentation of facts and news stories, allowing people to generate ill-informed opinions and to discourage informed debate.

He says a lot more than that of course... but the different positions taken by some of the authors on the list perhaps illustrate the difference between being 'smart' and being 'knowledgeable'. Intelligence vs wisdom?

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark, janet,

I reread the chomsky article

I think what he is saying is that public discourse is controlled through the mass media who set up the acceptable limits of discussion. Well, yes, a lot of people can see this but it requires a bit more nitty gritty IMO

He then goes onto imply that America today is like Germany in the 1930s, ie. that the USA is on the verge of fascism. I liked comment 10 which disputed his historical analysis about Germany. More could be added to that, eg. the Versaille Treaty after WW1.

If you read the article carefully the whole point of it is to imply that USA is treading the same path as Hitler but without coming out and directly saying that. No other concrete examples are provided.

So he's taking a generalised truth that "radicals" accept and then turning that to a cause that he is not prepared to argue directly. If he thinks that the USA is on the path to fascism he should argue that more comprehensively, IMO.

Anonymous said...


I think your analysis is on the mark. There were many problems with Germany, but one of the aspects that led to what it turned into was a natural human inclination when a society is in desparate straits, which is to romanticize the past with passion and force. Hitler's rhetoric that Germans found so stirring was his exhortation that Germany was once great, and that they needed to return to that greatness by basically turning back the clock. They literally wanted to stop the train of cultural progress and try to rev it backwards.

There was a call to some sort of absolute purity.

Interestingly there was also a strong fascination with technology. Some of engineering's most profound inventions of the 20th century came out of that culture, as disgusting as it was. It's the same thing we see with the jihadists now, though they don't invent very much in the way of engineering. From what I've heard though they are some of the earliest adopters of new technology.

I think the horror that Germany showed the world is that no matter how high a culture you have, it's still possible to descend into behaving like a bunch of barbarians, given the right conditions.

Like I was saying, Chomsky is taking his skills in linguistics, extending them into the political sphere, and dressing it up as though it's anthropology. I'm sure he's a fine academic in his area of expertise, but he makes himself look stupid by engaging in critique that he has no expertise in. I'd suggest to him that he do formal study on this area he's so interested in, but I suspect the idea would be wasted on him. He already has all the answers he wants.

Bill Kerr said...

hi daniel,

Important distinction you make about: being 'smart' and being 'knowledgeable'. Intelligence vs wisdom?

After reading Postman (and also Gatto) I was left with the feeling that they were saying that Americans were smarter around the time when typography was the dominant media, what he calls The Age of Exposition

Are you saying that it is possible for a society to be smarter in certain ways (trivial pursuits) while at the same time becoming less knowledgeable about more important Enlightenment Knowledge, knowledge with a capital K?

That's an insight that might make sense of how some of those conflicting texts relate to each other.