Mighty stupid media

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of doing an interview with the BBC World Service’s excellent show Digital Planet. One thing we discussed was the way software tools, by automating certain mental chores, may in subtle ways weaken our ability to learn. We talked, in particular, about how the reliance on GPS systems may weaken our ability to build mental maps of space, as well as about a fascinating Dutch study that showed that user-friendly software can lead to intellectual laziness.

The brief interview, which you can hear here, inspired a BBC News article yesterday that bore the headline “How good software makes us stupid.”

And then, today, that BBC News article turned into a Daily Telegraph piece with this headline:


I can’t wait to see the headline in the News of the World.

33 thoughts on “Mighty stupid media

  1. Kroberts39

    Seth: That’s a false analogy. But let’s assume that driving or riding vehicles will at some point displace walking (I’m thinking of the slobs in WALL-E, but those ridiculous Segways also come to mind). What happens then? Over a certain period of time, as you admit, the muscles in our legs would atrophy, relative to the extent of the displacement. That is the argument.

    Also, car users have to some degree lost touch with the physical world around them. Walking (not that I do much of that) and driving are entirely different experiences.

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    What’s false about the analogy? It seems to me very on-point, what with the concern about the effects of cars on public health. The relevant aspect is that using a car does not mean one never walks at all. So the ability to walk is retained overall even if one is using a car for hours a day as the primary mode of transport. And nobody says “Look at the rickshaw pullers, with their fantastic musculature – I hope they don’t lose it by turning into these newfangled taxicab drivers”

    Of course car-users are not as strong as those who walk everywhere. But they aren’t bedridden either. And someone who seriously associated using a car with getting Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) would be recognized as engaging in ridiculous scare-mongering.

  3. Tomforemski

    What’s new? Our brains have been shrinking since we invented agriculture. Civilisation and all its trappings is giving us smaller brains because we don’t need larger ones as much as we did when we were living on our wits on the prairies and in the forests. We don’t need Google to shrink our brains we are already doing just fine.

  4. Kroberts39

    Seth: It’s a false analogy because walking can’t (yet) be made obsolete in the way that manual navigation can be made obsolete. Using a car doesn’t mean that one never walks at all, true; but what if one gained unlimited access to a vehicle that made the work of walking unnecessary? And what if it became general consensus that it wasn’t really important to maintain that particular skill?

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    People can lose the physical capability to walk if they literally never take a step for weeks, as can happen due to injury or illness. But note it takes relatively little usage to retain that ability at a functional level (versus a marathon-running level). Similarly, using a GPS does not mean one never does any spacial navigation – mere moving around does that.

    Inveighing against the decadence of modernity, decrying the cultural degeneration, is an ancient practice.

  6. TopicLogic

    I have been following these comments with interest.

    One thought do you not think that the need for smaller amounts of information is deemanded by us due the large amount of information?

    It would seem a natural reaction, I am looking at technology to work in harmony with the brian and not replace it, this would seem too black and white an approach for me.

    More at: http://www.topiclogic.com/blog

  7. Les Posen

    Nick wrote: “Your movie scenario sounds boring, by the way. You might want to stick with the clinical psychology gig.”

    Why do you think I chose Nicholas Cage as the lead (although the mention of Kevin Costner is a more inspired choice)?

    I’m not sure, to press the original point home, that measures of brain size changes necessarily equates to a shift of skill level. As some have suggested, behaviour that becomes vestigial may be more than made up for by other behaviours moderating positively. Morever, there may be much malleability which crude measures of brain size changes may overlook.

    I have been driving automatic transmission cars for 20 years now, although I learnt on a manual (stick-shift). Yet I can hop off a plane in LA after 14hours, jump into a left hand drive manual and within a few moments of driving it around the Avis lot, can proceed onto the 405 and navigate LA’s freeway system without a bother. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to invite too many Americans to do it here in Australia after such a long journey. Transfer of training only goes so far…

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