Are We Getting Smarter?

In 2005 author Steven Johnson published Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, arguing that modern electronic communication is getting increasingly complex and thereby pulling us toward the greater intelligence needed to understand it. In May of 2006 Time Magazine published an interview with Johnson and three others (Mark Cuban, Andres Martinez, and Caitlin Flanagan), exploring some of the themes suggested by Johnson’s book.
That interview has been a pebble in my intellectual shoe every since. I found it irritating then and even more so now. Here are some specific problems I have with it.

1.  Johnson says,”We’re getting smarter in certain ways–pattern recognition, problem solving, abstract problem solving, system thinking, system analyzing with complex sort of multiple variables, visual intelligence, obviously technological intelligence, ability to adapt to new interfaces and find the information you need. On all of those levels, kids are much brighter today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And part of my argument is, if you’re thinking about the office place of the future, what are the skills that are going to be the most important for those kids? Is it going to be mastering new interfaces and keeping complex virtual relationships alive and multitasking and managing to think about new technologies in interesting ways? Or is it going to be algebra skills? I think you’d have to make the case that it’s probably the former, not the latter.”
Perhaps he is right, though I confess every indication I see and hear about is that our children entering the workforce are showing greater incompetence, not competence. More disturbing to me, however, is what is missing here. Johnson seems not to notice that the one who solves a problem is not as important as the one who sees the problem and evaluates its importance. It is the maker of the video game who has the power, not the player. The one who makes the rules for the game dominates the one who plays by the rules. And when we think beyond Steven’s imaginary office, we must also observe that foolishness seems on the rise, no?
Later in the interview, Martinez raises the right question, though it goes unanswered. He says,”I think we’re getting smarter, to go to your point, Steve, but I wonder if we’re getting wiser.”
It is essential that we gain knowledge, that we understand what we know, and — most importantly — that we gain wisdom. Knowledge is the raw material of the mind. Understanding is the ability to make sense of what we know (such as by seeing relationships between disparate bits of knowledge). Wisdom is the ability to make decisions that reflect an understanding of yesterday, an realistic awareness of today, and a good sense of tomorrow.

2. Closely related to Steven’s ideas is a remark made by Mark Cuban: “In the past, you had to memorize or retain knowledge because there was a cost to finding it. Did you have the encyclopedia? Could you spend time going to the library? Did you know somebody you could ask who knew the answer to this question? Were you going to be in a group that had a discussion about it? Now, what can’t you find in 30 seconds or less? We live an open-book-test life that requires a completely different skill set.”
Martinez’ question to Steven can be addressed as well to Cuban: Where is the wisdom? One can be a walking encyclopedia and still be an utter fool.That great philosopher (or basketball player or whatever) Shaquille O’Neal once explained to Michael Phelps why he didn’t know much about Phelps’ swimming records: “Like Einstein said, Don’t memorize it if you can look it up.” Has ignorance become our preferred state? A community of smart fools. . .Is that an admirable goal for a society?
Besides, 30 seconds is enough time to find only the most utterly trivial of facts. See, for example, what you can learn in 30 seconds about the influence of tenth century Scandinavian culture on the 11th century French and English cultures. (I’ll give you a head start: In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded England from northern France, the area called Normandy, just three or four generations after his Viking ancestors conquered northern France.) Now, set your timer for 30 seconds and study to your heart’s content.

3.  And speaking of community, Martinez raised a point I’ve heard expressed by many others. Even though our world is getting tougher to live in, at least “it’s less lonely, because there are more communities, and it’s easier to join them.” What I see is that our young people are more addictied to connection, less able to tolerate aloneness and silence, and certainly at least as lonely as ever. Cyber-communities are social salt water for the soul thirting for real communion.

Johnson and the others need to meditate for a time (if they have any concept of what that might mean) on the observation of Thoreau a century and a half ago, in response to the cross-continental stringing of telegraph wires. “”We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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