More and more people are asking this very basic question: Are people getting dumber because of digital devices? It may seem like a straightforward question. After all, when somebody’s getting dumber, you can easily measure that through the way they perform their work or their school tasks.
You can also measure it in their IQ and cognitive performance. But it turns out that this question is actually harder to answer than it appears. It seems that when you ask this question point blank, the answer would be a resounding yes.
After all, when people are constantly looking at their mobile devices like smart phones or tablets, that they basically are not paying attention to what’s going on around them. They become impatient. They tend to expect information to be spoon fed to them.
In fact, most people who access all sorts of digital services online are actually not reading. This is quite shocking, because a lot of people think that they are well-read. A lot of people think that they are fairly intelligent, and process a tremendous amount of information every single day.
That’s just an illusion, because when you actually pay close attention to what they are doing when they access and try to process online information, they’re actually doing it using shortcuts. Nobody’s claiming that most people who use digital devices don’t read. That’s too much of a claim to make.
Instead, people just read certain parts, and they’re basically scanning for keywords. When they come across a key phrase or a keyword that makes sense to them, or they are interested in, they stop. That’s when they read the group of words around the keyword, and if the context fits what they are looking for, they continue to scan through the article.
You may be thinking that this is a lazy way of reading, and you may be thinking that this is automatically a dumb way of processing information. Well, if we lived 50 years ago, you would be absolutely correct. Back in those days, people sat down by the fireplace and took out their pipe and whipped out the evening’s edition of their daily newspaper.
That’s how people processed information. They had a lot of time to process a tremendous amount of information. In fact, a lot of people subscribe to many different newspapers because they want to cross-reference whatever information they read.
We don’t have that luxury. Now, people just scan through information, and believe it or not, people are actually getting smarter, because we are training ourselves to zero in on what’s important. We tune out insignificant details, and we give ourselves only a few seconds to prioritize what information we should pay attention to.
This is a big deal because if we were to use the same reading habits or information-processing patterns that we use, let’s say, 20 years ago, people won’t leave the office. In fact, people won’t even be able to leave their homes, because every single day 2 million pieces of new information are posted on blogs.
And I’m just talking about blogs here. We’re not talking about newspapers. We’re not talking about books. There are tons of new information, both formal and semi-formal. This also comes in many different forms.
When people posts tweets, that’s a form of content. When people post long Facebook comments, that’s a form of content. So to say that people are automatically getting dumber because they use mobile devices, laptops, notebooks, and other screen-based devices, it’s kind of missing the big picture.
I’m not saying that they are absolutely wrong. I’m not saying that it’s incorrect or somehow unwise to ask whether people are getting dumber because of digital devices. Instead, the better question to ask is, are digital devices affecting our ability to process information in a negative way?
If that was the question, then we safely skip issues of people getting dumber or smarter. In other words, we dispense the unnecessary judgment. Instead, we focus more on effectiveness, optimization, and the overall effect on society.
I’m happy to report that thanks to digital devices, it’s actually easier to connect with people. But the problem is if you are a traditionalist, or you put a very high premium on face-to-face, human-to-human interaction with its matching collection of emotional and non-verbal signals, then a lot is lost in translation. No one is denying that.
But the truth is we live in the modern world. It is what it is, and when it comes to effective communication, rallying people around a certain idea, or just simply getting the word out, digital devices do more than a decent job.
In fact, they do an amazing job, and as these devices get cheaper and cheaper, and as apps become more powerful, and artificial intelligence opens new gateways, you can expect that there’s going to be more changes in how human beings process information.
This is not necessarily scary. This is not something that we should necessarily be concerned about. Instead, we should celebrate the fact that as digital devices evolve, human information-processing strategies keep up as well.
The difference between cultural and individual coping mechanisms
Make no mistake, when you are bombarded with info from a thousand and one directions, you are forced to cope. Otherwise, you won’t be as effective as you would like. Many of us find out the hard way. We are forced by circumstances to step up.
Feel free to come up with your own individual coping mechanism as long as it leads to greater personal effectiveness. This is the key. Don’t just go along to get along. Just because a lot of people are saying that there is one socially approved way to deal with the massive data blast we are all getting from our digital devices doesn’t mean that this is the path for you. Don’t be afraid to forge your own path. Come up with something works for you. The key is to maximize your personal effectiveness.