Is your mobile making you dumb?

Could your mobile be blamed for making you dumber? Maybe, and that’s not the half of it – it could kill you. Or, rather, it would be more accurate to say that your obsession with your mobile is what can have serious consequences.

How dare I criticize one of the most important inventions of the modern times? Mobiles are well on the road travelled by numerous other technological innovations in that we just start using them without paying much, if any, thought to the possible negative consequences of doing so. And I’m not talking about the radiation, which is the only thing where resources have been spent on, thankfully in vain.

The easy retort to that, aiming to avoid the hard work of objectively analyzing the costs and benefits of any given technology or change, is to make a blanket statement along the lines of the benefits surely far outweighing any costs, implying that the costs are thus not worth even thinking about.

The benefits may indeed outweigh the costs, but to use that as an excuse to refuse to even look at the associated negatives is at best lazy. What if by expending some modest effort into possible negative consequences we could neutralize or at least lessen them? Is it still not worth it?

It is actually already apparent that mobiles come with downsides; they can get you killed for distracted walking [1] and anecdotal evidence shows that when we use mobiles when out and about, we inevitably lose something else, too – and that something is at least situational awareness in its wider sense, i.e. not being aware of your surroundings.

Walking and texting is a known hazard, but what could possibly go wrong by just being engrossed in your cellphone while, say, commuting in a bus/train?

Lots. While there may be few roaming tigers looking to eat you while commuting – and even if we discount the more real threat of being robbed while oblivious to your surroundings – there are other costs. One is social – with everyone focused on their phones/tablets/Kindles/iPods etc, there’s not much random social interaction happening anymore; social interactions have in fact more than halved over the past 20 years [2].

We are, instead, alone together. In countries that had some odd genetic person-to-person communication disabilities to begin with – like Finland – the mere act of speaking to a stranger is nowadays considered somehow weird, even dangerous. This is not so much the case here in Australia (yet?), but more often than not every commuter travels in their own little electronic cocoon. This is potentially more serious than it may sound; cities thrive because of diversity, they are innovative because of random interactions of diverse people and mixing of thoughts and ideas. What if, by always being isolated in our own electronic bubble, we are in fact undermining one of the key benefits of urbanization? And it hits literally home, too – I know I’m sometimes guilty of being too focused on capturing a situation on a photo or video to really be 100% there at the time. And let me tell you, re-learning the skill of living in the moment instead of recording the moment is hard work.

Evidence is also building that ever-present online access is beginning to impact such basic capabilities as memorization [3]. And we’ve all heard of those hapless drivers who blindly follow their GPS into a ditch. If GPS relieves your brain of spatial navigation tasks, constant access to Google of all memorization tasks, always-at-hand computers of math tasks, social networking of real social skills, all creating downtime that is dominated by games and television, what is left there as an exercise for the brain?

It begs the question whether something should be consciously done to try and preserve some of those capabilities. I would dare say that most people do not utilize this newly-discovered spare processing capacity for anything that could be classified as exercise for the brain (no, even Angry Birds doesn’t classify :)). I would even go as far as to say that I would not be surprised if the average IQ is currently going down (i.e. the Flynn effect reversing). If that happens, maybe we’ll then take a second look at all the stuff we’ve unquestioningly adopted. Unless we’re too dumb to do that.

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One Response to Is your mobile making you dumb?

  1. Jukka Aakula says:

    So true.

    “It begs the question whether something should be consciously done to try and preserve some of those capabilities”

    This is the difficult question. There is hardly a generic answer.

    Personally I sometimes get tired on being too much on line. Then I start decreasing the on line time voluntarily. I move to using off line ways of consuming the content like reading books on Kindle. That’s already much better I think.

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