Do Smart Phones Make Us Smarter?

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July 26, 2016
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Can a smart phone make someone smarter? Does a car direction finder app make one eligible for NASA training school, or the camera phone turn someone into a reporter-wannabe so savvy they can skip four years of journalism classes? Modern tech devices can be helpful and make life easier, but there are serious drawbacks, says a Texas A&M University professor who studies technology.

Jonathan Coopersmith, professor of history at Texas A&M says modern technological devices used to demand that one learn specific skills and acquire the necessary resources to do them. For example, if someone wanted to make a film, they got a movie camera and the supporting technologies (film, lights, editing equipment) and then learned how to use them and hired a crew to handle all of the equipment. Next, they would shoot the movie, develop and edit the film, and the final step would be to make copies and distribute them.

“But many of those steps are eliminated today,” Coopersmith says. “Now all of those tasks are solved by technology. We need no longer learn the intricate details when the smartphone programmers do it for us. Technology has made us individually dumber and individually smarter. Technology has made us able to do more while understanding less about what we are doing, and has increased our dependence on others.”

He says these are not recent trends, but rather part of the history of technology.

In recent decades, three major changes have accelerated the process. First, the increasing pace of humans specializing in particular skills. Second, the outsourcing of more skills to technological tools, like a movie-making app on a smartphone, that relieves people of the challenge of learning large amounts of technical knowledge. Third, many more people have access to technology than in the past, allowing them to use these tools much more readily.

“Specialization enables us to become very good at some activities, but that investment in learning – for example, how to be an ER nurse or computer coder – comes at the expense of other skills like how to grow your own food or build your own shelter,” Coopersmith says. “As Adam Smith noted in his 1776 book Wealth of Nations, specialization enables people to become more efficient and productive at one set of tasks, but with a trade-off of increased dependence on others for additional needs. So in theory, everyone benefits.

“Specialization has moral and pragmatic consequences. Skilled workers are more likely to be employed and earn more than their unskilled counterparts. One reason the U.S. won World War II was that draft boards kept some trained workers, engineers, and scientists working on the home front instead of sending them to fight. A skilled machine tool operator or oil rig roustabout contributed more to winning the war by staying at home and sticking to a specialized role instead of heading to the front with a rifle. It also meant other men (and some women) donned uniforms and had a much greater chance of dying.”

A major downside of increased dependence on technologies is what happens when they break or even disappear, Coopersmith says.

“Just one example of many is that the U.S. Naval Academy just resumed training officers to navigate at sea by sextants. Historically the only way to determine a ship’s location at sea, this technique is being taught again both as a backup in case cyberattackers interfere with GPS signals and to give navigators a better feel of what their computers are doing.”

Coopersmith says a big question is how do people survive and prosper in this world of increasing dependence and change?

“It’s impossible to be truly self-reliant,” he says, “but it is possible to learn more about the technologies we use, to learn basic skills of repairing and fixing them, and to find people who know more about particular topics. Thinking about what happens if something goes wrong can be a useful exercise in planning or a descent into obsessive worrying.

“As a country, we also should be more proactive about encouraging more socially beneficial consequences. What do we want new technologies to do? How can they be developed, diffused, and adapted to strengthen an inclusive democracy? As Mel Kranzberg, a founder of the history of technology, said, ‘Technology is neither good nor bad. Nor is it neutral’.

“Individually, we depend more on our technologies than ever before – but we can do more than ever before. Collectively, technology has made us smarter, more capable and more productive. What technology has not done is made us wiser.”