Smart Technology Is Making Us Dumb

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Smart technology grants us unprecedented, immediate access to knowledge and to each other—a ubiquitous and seamless presence in everyday life. But is there a downside to all of this connectivity? It’s been said that smart technology creates dependency on devices, narrows our world to echo chambers, and impairs cognitive skills through shortcuts and distraction. Are smart tech devices guiding so much of our decision making that we are losing autonomy without even realizing it? Or are these concerns an overstatement of the negative effects of high-tech consumption?

  • Carr 90


    Nicholas Carr

    Author, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us & The Shallows

  • Keen 90px


    Andrew Keen

    Internet Entrepreneur & Author, The Internet Is Not the Answer

  • Bell 90pxs


    Genevieve Bell

    Anthropologist & VP, Intel Corporation

  • Weiberger 90px


    David Weinberger

    Senior Researcher, Berkman Center & Author, Too Big to Know

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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Carr 90

For The Motion

Nicholas Carr

Author, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us & The Shallows

Nicholas Carr writes about technology and culture. He is the author of the acclaimed new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (2014), which examines the personal and social consequences of our ever growing dependency on computers. His previous work, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2011), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a New York Times bestseller. A former columnist for the Guardian, Carr writes the popular blog Rough Type and has written for The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Wired, Nature, MIT Technology Review, and other periodicals. His essays, including “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “The Great Forgetting,” have been collected in several anthologies. Previously, Carr was executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, as well as a member of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s editorial board of advisors and the steering board of the World Economic Forum’s cloud computing project.

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Keen 90px

For The Motion

Andrew Keen

Internet Entrepreneur & Author, The Internet Is Not the Answer

Andrew Keen is an Internet entrepreneur and the author of three books: The Internet Is Not the Answer (2015), Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us (2012), and Cult of the Amateur: How The Internet Is Killing Our Culture (2007). In 1995, he founded and built it into a popular first generation Internet company. Keen is currently the executive director of the Silicon Valley salon FutureCast, a senior fellow at CALinnovates, the host of the “Keen On” Techonomy chat show, and a columnist for CNN.

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Bell 90pxs

Against The Motion

Genevieve Bell

Anthropologist & VP, Intel Corporation

Genevieve Bell is an Intel Fellow and vice president of the Corporate Strategy Office at Intel Corporation. She leads a team of social scientists, interaction designers, human factors engineers and computer scientists focused on people's needs and desires to help shape new Intel products and technologies. An accomplished anthropologist, researcher, and author, she has been granted a number of patents for consumer electronics innovations. Bell is a highly regarded industry expert and frequent commentator on the intersection of culture and technology, featured in Wired, Forbes, Atlantic, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. She was recognized as one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, and honored as the 2013 Woman of Vision for Leadership by the Anita Borg Institute. With Paul Dourish, she authored Divining a Digital Future (2011).

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Weiberger 90px

Against The Motion

David Weinberger

Senior Researcher, Berkman Center & Author, Too Big to Know

David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, where he previously served as co-director of the Library Innovation Lab and led its Interoperability Initiative. He is currently a fellow at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy. His most recent book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room (2014), won two international Best Book of the Year awards. He has been published by Wired, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American, New York Times, and elsewhere. Additionally, Weinberger advised three U.S. presidential campaigns on Internet issues and was a Franklin Fellow at the U.S. State Department. Called a "marketing guru" by Wall Street Journal, he was previously a high tech marketing VP and strategic marketing consultant, a dot-com entrepreneur, and now serves on the advisory boards of several tech companies.

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Declared Winner: Tie

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Voting Breakdown:

54% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (26% voted FOR twice, 23% voted AGAINST twice, 5% voted UNDECIDED twice). 46% changed their minds (6% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 4% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 8% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 2% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 12% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 14% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link Kyle Friday, 27 May 2016 14:59 posted by Kyle

      Late to the debate but this fascinates me as I've been following a sort of de-evolution that is occurring amongst the human race.

      As far as intelligence and technology is concerned, I see an inverse correlation begin when the necessity/convenience threshold is crossed.

      Smarter humans developed technology to survive under environmental pressure where as the "dumb" were weeded out. Now technology is sort of handed down through the means of sanitation, medicine, agriculture, etc.,in such a way that the environmental pressures that brought the more intelligent of the species to fruition no longer exist allowing the dumb to proliferate. Not only that, IQ is being bred out of the population by a pseudo-survivalist scenario, an economy focused on extrinsic rewards, capitalism/consumerism, has more intelligent people having less children and less intelligent having many more and are even subsidized to do so in the dependency class.

      Fascinating topic although I would have liked to see the terms of "smart technology" more clearly defined.

      I believe once technology moves from necessity to convenience, it creates dependence...and if we're being honest with ourselves dependency stinks b/c at that point, it took nothing for the species to gain. No innovation, no hard trials, no intellectual thought to overcome.

      Perhaps this is why the average IQ is dropping and has dropped 14 points in the last century. Technology, the pinnacle of human achievement, has erased the environmental pressures that brought us here.

    • Comment Link Kevin Currie-Knight Saturday, 22 August 2015 11:05 posted by Kevin Currie-Knight

      In this debate, there was some talk about clarifying terms, like distinguishing between information and knowledge, or distinguishing what we mean by 'smart technology.'

      But there was one distinction I think was most needed that was never addressed: distinguishing what we mean by 'smart,' 'dumb' or really just 'intelligence.' To say that smart technology is making us dumb or less intelligent, one needs to have an idea of what we mean by that. And to be blunt, I think Nicholas Carr's idea of what intelligence is is about as wrong-headed as one can get.

      Several times, Carr brings up attention and memory, and the idea that we can only hold so much in short-term memory and that technology is both taxing our short-term memory and making it hard to hold attention.

      But that is sort of where he stops. It is as if he is implying that taxing short-term memory and attention span means that we are stupider. But while attention span and short-term memory may be necessary conditions for intelligence (and I'm not sure how much that's true, even), they surely aren't sufficient.

      There is't really much agreement on how to define intelligence, but most definitions I've seen have something to do with the ability to solve problems. Now, to solve problems, you need to have the attention to do that, and maybe (depending on the problem) hold things in short-term memory.

      But solving problems often relies on what tools one has around me. I am smarter at math when I have a paper and pencil in front of me, and maybe even smarter still when i have a calculator in front of me. So, to the extent that smart technology can help us solve problems, then as long as intelligence is defined by our ability to solve problems, it seems that smart technology at least COULD make us smarter.

      But that also depends on defining what we mean by solving problems. Do we mean - as Carr seems to want - the ability to solve problems in our heads only? Is a person smart in math only to the degree that she can do the math in her head? Or is she smarter with a calculator because we are allowing that 'smart' means 'able to solve a problem and use the tools around you to do it'?

      I think addressing what we mean by intelligence would have brought the discussants a lot closer to a more productive dialogue.

      Last thing. Let's say Carr is correct that intelligence depends on short-term memory. Okay, well our short-term memory unaided by technology is not terribly great. It is much better at things like spatial memory and procedural memory, and much less at declarative memory for things like number sequences. (You will be able to remember the layout of a house you've only been in for 10 minutes better than a 10 digit sequence of random digits.)

      SO, at least one thing technology can do that makes us smarter is frees up our limited (to four chunks of info) short-term memory for stuff it is good at by offloading stuff it is bad at. I can remember where I put a sticky note better than I can the information on the sticky note. So, if I use Google Keep to put down "sticky notes," it seems obvious that the technology made me smarter, because now, I only have to remember where I put those notes. Same with facebook: sometimes, I clip articles and put them on my facebook wall for later retreival. And it seems strange to say that because I used facebook to do it, that somehow makes me dumber.

      And last but not least, I haven't addressed Andrew Keen's arguments, because strawmanning is not an argument, but a fallacy.

    • Comment Link Chinh Wednesday, 08 July 2015 17:30 posted by Chinh

      Speaking from my own experience and observation, it is so true that I and many of the people around me have this dependency and compulsiveness nature to technology. Yes, it does make my life easier, but at what cost? I feel like the path we are going toward is where real knowledge is control by a few (creator), and the vast majority just know how to input command (user). For example, how many people really know what is behind the technology they use daily? In a corporate setting, what portion of the work force actually contribute to the creative thinking? Technology has brought vast changes, good and bad, but I foresee lots of cattle in future, with only a handful ranchers. I just cant see how that is good.

    • Comment Link Justin Tuesday, 30 June 2015 03:15 posted by Justin

      Smart technology, like all technology, is making the smart people smarter and the dumb people dumber. Duh.

    • Comment Link Thabiso Mhlaba Wednesday, 27 May 2015 23:23 posted by Thabiso Mhlaba

      May I say that the most disappointing thing is no one mentioning podcasts and all the other new media that have become available as the result of the internet and smart technology. IQ2US is something I only have access to via the internet. The entire goal is to witness a debate and ask questions and make up your mind. Facebook is littered with debates about all sorts of things. There's a ton of fluff but really the internet gives us a huge resource for learning. I think I find more abstract and conceptual concerns as a result of the internet. The only knowledge i really see people losing out on is practical knowledge. (IE changing a tire) Even so that practical knowledge is easily available. I built myself a computer a few months ago, and learned how all the individual pieces function as well as how to properly take care of it all from some web tutorials and then a couple of opinion podcasts.

      I'm more knowledgeable about computer hardware and software as a result of the internet. Smart tech is a tool, how we use it is up to us.

    • Comment Link Rebecca Wednesday, 27 May 2015 00:49 posted by Rebecca

      It's ironic that Those on the side of technology are way less articulate

    • Comment Link Ann Heiser Tuesday, 26 May 2015 13:59 posted by Ann Heiser

      I found this debate severely limited by it's lack of factual content. There was no discussion of actual research. I found it disturbingly superficial.

    • Comment Link Jim Tuesday, 26 May 2015 11:23 posted by Jim

      We may be addressing a symptom here rather than a cause. It has been my experience that the triumph of capitalism over all other motivations has created a culture that increasingly invested in documents and credentials rather than in competence. I think that we are losing the ability to see and appreciate subject mastery, and have been sold a false approach to identifying success.

      I suppose "smart technology" may aid in keeping the smoke machine running, but ultimately the problem seems to me something far more fundamental than the tools we use. It is instead the rules of the game we are choosing to embrace.

    • Comment Link jae Sunday, 24 May 2015 13:48 posted by jae

      I'm listening to this debate and can't help but being upset by the simple minded premises of this topic "IS SMART TECHNOLOGY IS MAKING US DUMB?" This topic is so much more complex than this and to blanket it this way is not serving us and feels like a waist if time. Good topic...poor question.

    • Comment Link Gary Ricke Friday, 22 May 2015 11:51 posted by Gary Ricke

      "For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom."

      -Plato on the invention of writing

    • Comment Link Giles Jackson Thursday, 21 May 2015 09:13 posted by Giles Jackson

      Smart technology - as with all new tech over the millennia is a double edged sword. The Socrates argument about literacy making people forgetful was fascinating, though one could also argue that literacy allowed people to read, both works of educational value... and 50 Shades of Gray.

      My vote goes that smart technology is not making us dumb, but that we are being dumb in the ways we choose to use it.

    • Comment Link john t stark Wednesday, 20 May 2015 16:43 posted by john t stark

      This was an excellent debate despite the fundamental flaw associated with the framing of the topic, it was far too ambiguous. The term "making us dumb", does not lend itself to objective criteria. If being more informed makes you less dumb, that leads to one conclusion, if being more dependent on technology is the definition of being dumb that leads to the opposite conclusion. Perhaps the definition of dumb should have been the topic of debate. I would have found it interesting to discuss whether the internet has grown organically(and thus in some regard practically) or with a corporate model(and thus in a somewhat derived or artificial way) perhaps that would have been a telling consideration, as to whether it is a organically based step in the evolution of the mind or simply another marketing mechanism using our natural instinct to grow in knowledge as a marketing tool designed to give the illusion of advancing intellect. Regardless this was an excellent debate, with both sides of the issue well represented. One of the best debates so far. Thanks to those who make these debates possible.

    • Comment Link Tait Wednesday, 20 May 2015 13:56 posted by Tait

      The title of this debate was catchy, but its turbidity muddled every interaction. I don't think that the panelists held irreconcilable views. Does anyone else think that an agreement of the definition of terms would have been helpful at the outset? Such as:

      What do you mean by "smart technology"? Technology that can access the internet? Technology that can do calculations for us? Technology that we wear?

      Who is "us"? Individuals? Cultures? (It seemed like the pro side spoke almost exclusively of the former and the con of the latter!)

      How do we quantify "dumb"? Access to information? Apprehension of information? Retention of information? Articulation of information? Does dumb even have anything to do with information, or does it include relational skills, or executive (decision-making) wisdom?

      The debate would have been much richer if they had followed Socrates' advice (even cited in the debate!) and articulated the question better. Perhaps they were unable to, because they were too dependent on technology. We'll never know.

    • Comment Link Tuan Tong Wednesday, 20 May 2015 03:21 posted by Tuan Tong

      Smart technology is good for people. We know easily what is happened around the world.

    • Comment Link Christopher Marsh Monday, 18 May 2015 01:59 posted by Christopher Marsh

      Tools have always helped smart people get smarter, freeing them up to grow.

    • Comment Link Doug Friday, 15 May 2015 22:53 posted by Doug

      I was disappointed that the Cuba question was never quite fully articulated nor was it really addressed by the debaters. The nearly asked question was - are Cubans, due to not having access to smart technology, less dumb than we are? I would have really like to hear the panelists answer that.

    • Comment Link Carmen Wednesday, 13 May 2015 20:26 posted by Carmen

      Key point: obessive

      To borrow a phase from a very smart organiztion: Technology as Servant

      My posiiton: books, culture, art, critical thinking feeds my soul; I find tehnology to simply be a tool.

    • Comment Link Andrew Caudell Wednesday, 13 May 2015 19:52 posted by Andrew Caudell

      One thing nobody has mentioned is the attention being given by smartphone designers to what the proposing side is calling 'information overload'. For instance, the latest Android OS updates have given a lot of attention to reducing the frequency of trivial notifications bombarding you on a daily basis, as well as making it easier and quicker for the user to dismiss notifications they deem unimportant.

    • Comment Link Andrew Caudell Wednesday, 13 May 2015 19:23 posted by Andrew Caudell

      'The death of recorded music'? Perhaps, but it's been replaced by the dawn of streaming music services. Mr. Keen isn't too... Keen, methinks.

    • Comment Link Vicki Cobb Wednesday, 13 May 2015 19:19 posted by Vicki Cobb

      You might be interested in a Huff Post piece I wrote on this after reading Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows:

      Can I Please Have Your Undivided Attention?

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