Humans are getting smarter but is technology dumbing down the world?
In the past 100 years, standardized tests for IQ have been improving. In short, we are smarter than our ancestors, mostly supported by, if not dependent on, technological advancements. The Flynn effect, named after intelligence researcher James Flynn, a professor of the University of Otago in New Zealand, concluded that humans have gained around three extra IQ points per decade. Flynn and his teammates have found that the new generations around the world score higher on the old tests than the original test takers did. They also indicate that rising IQ scores are due to advancements in modern environments.
Now modern environments include the increasing use of technology. Next thing we know, we will be landing on Mars. Chances are we will still be carrying suitcases full of unnecessary items, just in case we need them. Or we forgot our outer space Passport on the kitchen table. Technology has yet to solve human irrationality.
In an article by BBC Future called ‘has humanity reached peak intelligence’, the author David Robson states that we are living in an intellectual golden age. He also mentions that IQ tests are not perfect but should be used as a general rule of thumb to assess our capacity to process complex and abstract information. So far so good. But the article suggests that this trend is slackening and could even be that we reached the pinnacle of human intelligence. According to recent studies, the Flynn effect may be slowing down, with several countries losing IQ points. I wonder, is it partly because of technology?
On one hand, we are gaining in time or energy but on the other hand, we are digressing in our ability to be resourceful. Cannot sleep at night? Download an app or listen to a soothing podcast. I am not debating the merits of problem solving by technology (or the improvement of your quality of sleep) but before applications came along, we would have resorted to other means. In so doing, we would adapt our minds to discomfort and undergone trial and error mechanisms, beneficial for our own development.
We are becoming extensively reliant on convenience and the easy access to problem solving by a simple click of a mouse or tap on a smartphone. Recently, we dropped my friend’s niece for tennis lessons and she was so engrossed in her iPad that she forgot she had to unlock the car door to get out. She looked at us for some time before we hinted what to do. Being absorbed by a virtual reality is making us forgot how to be street smart or how to solve simple problems. We cannot generalise from one simple event you say. Fair point.
Enter paid streaming services and the enlightened couch potatoes.
Certain paid streaming services offer some of the best documentaries and mini-series I have seen. Same can be said for other television channels; providing us with thought-provoking and sometimes life changing short films. The Netflix documentary, Game Changers, about the effects of plant-based products on health and peak performance has positively influenced many individuals in my close surroundings. It is a great documentary to kickstart a health-based change, but I have also observed that the contents are being discussed in patronising and condescending ways. It is as if one has gained a three-year degree in nutrition or one has already practiced what one is preaching, for many years, with conclusive evidence.
The ability to watch thoughtfully-crafted life or travel documentaries from the comfort of our own home has turned us into enlightened couch potatoes. We travel through the experiences of others and we live to talk about our virtual experiences. But we failed to learn the skills along the way; the life lessons that come with the actual travel or having skin in the game.
We are privy to a treasure trove of information, making us more knowledgeable but not necessarily more intelligent, at least not in terms of critical thinking and not in our capacity to filter out information. As Scott Fitzgerald said: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Nowadays, we stand between numerous contradictions and a flux of constantly evolving information. Garbage in and garbage out.
Recently, I cancelled my Netflix subscription. I love Netflix and it has given me some of the best infotainment of my life. It was a symbolic gesture; to cut the instant access to the illusion of knowledge, to compel me to search for such knowledge, either by reading more books or seeking people who have learned the ways of the street.
If we do not build our critical thinking or filtering faculties, we will constantly be victim to mass media spread, propaganda or fake news. I believe, whether or not our IQ increases or stagnates, as an individual or as a collective, is not the question. The better question is how we can better help ourselves before seeking facilitation by means of technology.