Posted September 25, 2007 4:04 pm by with 14 comments

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Americans get dumber every year. It’s true. If you doubt it, just watch an episode of the gameshow “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader.” Most people, frankly, aren’t.

But are we getting dumber or just more dependent on technology to remember details for us? In this month’s issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson examines how we’ve allowed machines to remember so much for us, possibly allowing us to focus on other human thoughts and even accelerate intelligence by sharing thoughts online.

I personally embrace the lifestyle where computers can remember the details for me, and when needed, I can pull out that data from its source. In essence, a computer can act like a secondary hard drive for my brain, allowing me to focus on thoughts and ideas that only the human brain can. No matter how advanced a computer may be, it still lacks compassion, emotion, and free will — all components of human thought.

I have this debate on a semi-regular basis with my husband, who is also a search engine marketer and a former school teacher. We’ve discussed often how, in the world of Google and other search engines, we no longer need to remember everything, because we can always “Google” it. The Internet and Google should have changed our education system by now, but I’m not sure that it has impacted education the way that it perhaps should.

Education, until I graduated from high school, consisted primarily of memorization. Yes, there was SOME free thought in there, but probably 50% or more of most Americans’ education comes from memorization of facts. And how many of us truly remember who the 23rd President of the US was? (Answer at the bottom of this post.) Do you use that information every day? Is it necessary information to solve world problems? So why not rely on computers for more of this memorized data as we need it? Why not allow students to learn how to find the information they need as opposed to memorizing facts they have no hope of remembering?

The key in my mind is to determine what is uniquely human capability and what is best done by a computer. For instance, is it necessary for me to remember every birthday of every friend and family member? Why not free up that part of my memory for other things that can’t be simply stored on a technical device?

Well, there is a down side. Thompson brings up a good point — what if you’re “off the grid”? How would you function if you needed the data stored on a computer somewhere?

By the way… the answer to the 23rd President question? Benjamin Harrison. I confess… I Googled it.

  • Aaron

    If I’m off the grid and can’t come up with the name of the 23rd President, which I need because… er….

    Memorizing useful facts is one thing. But we need to differentiate “quality education” from “trivia contests”.

  • Ouch – If I were “Off the grid” – I would be “Up a Creek”! Really, I do rely on google for everything. I find myself googling things on my phone at the store and in my car. I get in an argument at 11PM with hubby, no problem I will google it and make sure he knows I’m Right darn it! haha…

  • DJ

    Smart people know that you don’t have to know everything…you just have to know where to find it.

  • I’m glad to have a quick, accurate resource for storing and finding information. Technology is only going to get better. 100 years ago, they probably debated if we’d all go dumb with the mass production of books to store information. 😉

  • Teacher: Who was the 26th president?
    Me: Who cares?

    I will keep my Google habbits!

  • Stefanie

    Googling something doesn’t make one dumb, it makes them want to learn more about a topic. We do not need to have anything memorized and we do not need to know everything. The computer is a great storage place and is very helpful

  • Stefanie

    I also agree with DJ. He’s right that smart people don’t need to know everything, they just need to know where to find it. Research a topic may sometimes be challenging as well.

  • I think it’s just the devices that change.
    Letterpress and libraries did not make people dumber but smarter instead. The web or computers have the same potential.

    Everything is a question of how accessible, credible and omnipresent a device is or can be.

    But: What have we already lost to pocket calculators and Excel? Will we have lost our ability to write by the time when speech recognition and computers are omnipresent?

  • As we get older we instead of storing every fact we instead store information about where we can find the facts. I don’t think this is a search engine thing, but something that’s been going on a lot longer.

    It takes less memory to store the information about where something might be than to store the information itself.

  • Tom

    The problem with Google is it makes people too lazy. Small details help improve your critical thinking. The ability to “connect the dots” is what makes someone intelligent. Besides, your brain can never fill up with information. It is your ability to recall it that fails.

  • I had my share of teachers who insisted that I learn things by rote. I am grateful particularly for the arithmetic tables that we were compelled to learn by heart. I do not carry a pocket calculator with me everywhere and I look bemusedly at counter clerk using one to do simple tasks.

    I also had teachers who taught that one must learn how to learn. One need not remember everything and it will suffice if one knew how to get informaion when needed.

    Today Google has made it easier, but before that we had the dictionary, the thesaurus, the encyclopedia etc to help us. The only thing that has changed is that we can be smart faster than before.

  • I Google it. v_v

  • people dont get dumber by saving so much info on the web, as they did not get dumber when started using hand notebooks and were carrying pens in pocket to note addresses, phone numbers etc. and using technology people got much more effective.
    i do translation from my home. i find customers online, i track my sales using online services, i get paid online i do shopping online which is delivered to my home by services. if this is what they call dumb then i would prefer being dumb than being a smart who goes to job interviews, gets up at 6 am in the morning to catch a bus, waits in line of banks and many other dumb staff that can be avoided by using online technology.

  • Personally I think people are getting dumber in general – but there’s also a percentage of people getting way smarter too.

    The people who rely on technology to do the “remembering” for them are the “getting dumber” group, but then there’s the people using that same technology to provide the services…..