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The Present

Smart technology (probably) isn’t making you dumber

Technology usually has more pros than cons, but every benefit still carries some risk.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

An Italy fan uses her smartphone as she waits for the start of the UEFA EURO 2020 semi-final football match between Italy and Spain at Wembley Stadium in London on July 6, 2021.
Key Takeaways
  • A new paper in Nature Human Behaviour states that technology is not making us dumber.
  • The authors believe smart technology changes how we engage our biological cognitive abilities.
  • While fears are likely overblown, technology addiction and memory problems still need to be addressed.

    It seems that every major scientific or technological advancement is immediately labeled “dangerous” by critics. The printing press was going to destroy our memory. Pasteur’s groundbreaking work was followed by an anti-vaccine movement. Radio was going to destroy society; then it was television; then, the internet. Pushback against progress appears inevitable.

    Of course, technology is usually morally indifferent. Smartphones can be used to video call your grandparents or order illegal drugs. How we use technology is what matters.

    Smart tech, dumb people

    The newest fear is that smart technology (smartphones, computers, tablets, the internet of things, etc.) is supposedly making us dumber. But a trio of authors, led by Lorenzo Cecutti, argue in a new paper that smart technology is not turning us into dummies.

    According to co-author Anthony Chemero, the idea that smartphones and digital technology damage our biological cognitive abilities is not backed up by science. Instead, he claims that we are developing different relationships to cognition due to smart devices. “What smartphones and digital technology seem to do instead is to change the ways in which we engage our biological cognitive abilities.”

    The team cites research that found that using digital technology as an external memory system doesn’t take into account the fact that short-term effects do not necessarily indicate long-term changes to cognitive functioning. They write, “Relying on external tools when they are available is not the same as losing the ability to engage internal processes when necessary.”

    Other research disagrees with that conclusion. The famous London cab driver study showed that cabbies had larger hippocampi and better memory than non-drivers. Other research shows that GPS reduces spatial awareness and mental mapping. Studies such as these indicate that — as the cliché goes — if you don’t use it, you lose it.

    Photo: ikostudio / Adobe Stock

    More good than bad

    Still, the authors are correct that fear about the dangers of technology is overblown. Technology generally makes life better. In particular, the team considered five ways in which smart technologies are especially useful:

    • Complexity. Fields such as data visualization, financial accounting, and statistical analysis all benefited from the speed and accuracy of technology.
    • Reliance and skill. Advances in computational ability free up cognitive resources so that coders and data scientists can focus on understanding data and building better programs.
    • External access –> Freed capacity. The internet offers far greater access to information than any previous technology. Because we don’t need to memorize, our mental resources are free to be used for creativity or learning other things.
    • Flexibility. People can freely choose what information to memorize and what to offload.
    • Self-insights and self-control. With so much information at our fingertips, we can choose what to focus our attention on. (However, this assumes that smart tech isn’t addictive.)

    There’s always some risk

    While the team ably counters the fear-mongering around the “dumbing down” of humanity through technology, they also seem a bit too enthusiastic about championing its advancements. Chemero concludes:

    “You put all this technology together with a naked human brain and you get something that’s smarter…and the result is that we, supplemented by our technology, are actually capable of accomplishing much more complex tasks than we could with our un-supplemented biological abilities.”

    That is certainly true, to a degree. But we should also be aware that every benefit comes with a cost.

    Here’s another thing to consider: what happens if your smartphone or the internet stops working?

    Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book isHero’s Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.”


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