Why Smart Technology is Dumbing Us Down

I’ve been teaching, on and off now, for more than 16 years, and I’m always horrified by how lazy students are getting, thanks, in part, to technology. Lamentably, there seems to be a direct correlation between more technology usage and less brain usage. And our society puts way too much emphasis on—and faith in—our innumerable electronic devices and doodads.

Of course, I don’t necessarily exempt myself from this problem of smart-gadget dependence. For instance, I don’t know my own mother’s cell phone number. In fact, I probably couldn’t tell you the majority of the phone numbers that are in my contact list right now. Why? My iPhone stores that information for me. I may remember my home address from when I was in third grade—because I HAD to memorize that—but I can’t tell you the simple things, like my best friend’s work email or the pediatrician’s office number.

Of course, this isn’t a “new” problem. Around 370 BC, Socrates admonished in The Phaedrus that the written word is the enemy of memory and that the moment we write something down is the moment we start to forget. I’ve forgotten. I’ve fallen in to the bad habit of letting electronic devices substitute for brainpower, and I suppose that using low-level memorization skills has become slightly redundant. But our vulnerability lies in the fact that when we no longer have the incentive to remember something, we neglect it. Why take up precious, mental real estate with inconsequential details when our brains could be put to use on other tasks, should the need arise?

OK. Fine. So we have to look up Aunt Sally’s address for the 803rd time. But what happens when those “other tasks”—like moral decisions and safety issues—really SHOULD command a healthy dose of higher-level, cognitive thinking skills?

I think about things like this because I worry for my students, but, more importantly, I worry for my children. The world in which they are growing up is very different from my own, even from just a few decades ago. And while it’s amazing to hear about the latest and greatest innovations, it’s disheartening to realize that technological “advancement” doesn’t always mean that we, ourselves, have advanced. On the contrary; sometimes I think it means that we’ve regressed.

And it’s not just smart phones, either. Take the first, so-called “smart gun” that recently hit the shelves. The Smart System iP1, a .22-caliber pistol made by the German gun-maker Armatix GmbH, can only function with an accompanying wristwatch. According to a report about this pistol, when the RFID-equipped watch is activated by a PIN number and placed near the gun—like when a shooter grips the handle—it sends a signal to unlock the gun, and a light on the back of the weapon turns green. Otherwise, the firearm stays locked, and the light on the back remains red.

Sound like a dream come true? NO; it’s another technological nightmare. It raises a host of questions about malfunctions and misuses. But worst of all, a “smart” gun takes the intelligence, the understanding, and the know-how out of the hands—or should I say out of the minds—of the people who are involved. So, instead of teaching people about firearms safety and about how to properly handle, store, and use guns, we are once again substituting electronic devices for brainpower. And to me, there’s just no excuse for that.

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