I have heard many people complain about the phone zombies. I’m sure you’ve seen them too: they populate subway wagons and cafeterias, staring dumbly at their screens instead of focusing on the world around them. They detach themselves from reality and instead devote their attention to their virtual, meaningless lives, to which they remain always connected, foregoing real human contact, literature or thought.
Gone are the days when people actually read in the subway. Or contemplated. Or stared at the other passengers while considering the great truths of the human race.
The thing is, I really don’t remember those days. Back when there were no phones to stare at, I remember people sleeping or staring blankly at infinity. Some others looked positively sad. I even have a vivid memory of a guy with a knife that liked to poke holes on the subway wall while singing and clapping loudly. Yes, some commuters would do crossword puzzles and, yes, some would read, though probably not Nietzsche but Dan Brown or whatever the equivalent was back then.
I don’t really mind the phone zombies. In fact, I think they only look like zombies. To be more precise, I think some of them are zombies, but not because of their phone. You see, people who don’t like thinking or reading don’t need any excuse to not do any of those things. They just don’t do them. Listening at the noise of the rails is distraction enough. People who like thinking or reading or contemplating the great truths of human existence will most likely use technology in order to further these passions and, even though they will seem to be lost in their screens, they will be doing something productive.
For example, I like to read my flipboard and my feed.ly when I am on the tram. I get updated on science and technology issues and, sometimes, I check the news. I probably look like I’m a babbling idiot, but that’s because my brain is engaged in highly demanding cognitive processes that deviate my brain’s attention from trying to look cool while I read.
I have also noticed that many people actually read on their phones. Sometimes, incredibly heavy stuff. Before technology boomed, you could not read “In search of lost time” in the subway. It just didn’t fit in your handbag or your pocket or whatever it is you had. You had to stick with light-weight works, which were the only ones that were easy to transport. But now you don’t even have to carry any extra stuff with you: you turn on your phone, go to Google Books and start reading “A tale of two cities” for free. And boy, isn’t that wonderful.
What I want to say is that I don’t think technology is making is dumber. We may look dumber, but have you ever looked at someone who’s watching TV? Yes, not the prettiest sight in the world. It’s just the relaxed face muscles. Technology cannot make you dumber or smarter: you are dumb or smart and it is this characteristic that’s going to determine how you use technology. You can use Coursera to learn Quantum Computing or you can post comments on youtube saying “ur hot” to 15-year old girls. But technology is not making you do these things. Your brain wiring is.
That said, I do feel there has been a shift in the weight that new generations put on cognitive abilities, but that has happened before. Before the printing press, people memorized books. This may seem like an amazing achievement to us, but it was relatively routine back then. Right now, no sane person would even try. But why would we? We have books. We don’t have to memorize them. The information is there, readily accessible: we have outsourced the need.
This outsourcing trend is continuing to a much higher degree now. We can check any fact we want in our phones in less than 30 seconds. Why would we bother to memorize any dates? Today we need to be good at browsing and filtering information, not at retaining it. We have machines that do this for us. Of course, a person may look dumber since, without their phone, they seem to possess a lot less knowledge than a person from 30 years ago. However, if we could bring someone from back then here and give them a phone, their global man-machine performance would in all likelihood be lower than that of a man-machine set today. That is: we have adapted to our new tools, so much so that our intelligence cannot be measured without taking them into account. Our gadgets work as extensions of our psyches.
Have we become dumber? I don’t think so. Separate from our extensions, maybe. With them, there is no contest. Consider this: I teach a 16-year-old who knows more about cutting-edge science and technology than I do. How? Reddit and an interest in the subject. This was unthinkable when I was his age: the information just wasn’t available. Now it is, for anyone who wants to have it.
Is it any wonder we spend hours glued to our screens?