6: Smarter or Dumber?

While the always-on technology provides us with a wealth of information and resources that are geared to make the user "smarter" and more capable, there is also the notion that information technology can also be detrimental.

Relying on technology has always been regarded as a sort of crutch - educators are reluctant to allow students to use calculators because they lose the ability to do math any other way, and lacking the fundamental skills makes it more difficult for them to understand more advanced topics.

Additionally, there's the notion of information overload: technology assaults us with more information that we can possibly pay attention to or make practical use of - and as a result, we become scattered, unable to differentiate between the important and unimportant, and unable to focus or concentrate.

In effect, the charge is that information technology is making users dumber rather than smarter.

Fractured Concentration

The ease of dashing off an e-mail means office workers deal with scores of messages a day, far more than in the days of paper correspondence, and spend their days in a frenzy of activities that require a short amount of time and attention. In addition to work-related tasks, the mobile device rings constant distractions (getting text messages from the kids or social contacts, checking your stock portfolio, making arrangements for dinner or a weekend activity). The result is fractured concentration - constantly shifting among hundreds of tasks that each require a quick and superficial amount of attention.

While it has been argued that the ability to switch activities and manage multiple tasks makes modern workers more efficient, their lack of attention and superficial involvement makes them less effective, unable to consider the "big picture" and inclined to put as little effort as possible into each task in order to move on to the dozens of other things that are demanding immediate attention.

The author refers to psychological studies on memory and concentration. Subjects who reported heavier use of communication technology and multitasking scored much more poorly than those who reported less on tests of memory (being asked to remember an image and indicate differences is a slightly different one) and cognition (reading comprehension). Those who multi-task even performed worse at tests that were designed to require quick assessment and reaction (being shown a letter-number combination and indicating whether the number was even or odd), a skill at which they would seem to be more adept due to their experience. Naturally, the study has been the subject of a hail of criticism, attacked on virtually every front with almost religious fervor by those who disputed that there was any harmful effect from the consumption or use of information technology. Even so, the findings have some credibility, and while the study results are disputed, they have not been invalidated.

Aside of the obvious commercial interest involved, some sources assert that any negative remark about technology poses a threat to freedom of choice and personal lifestyle, and draw a significant backlash. (EN: An interesting parallel is the same kind of backlash occurs to studies that suggest a link between cell phones and cancer, which in turn links to the objection in earlier years of the connection between cigarettes and cancer. Any research contrary to public opinion will be dismissed.)

However, there is evidence that multitasking decreases performance, independent of the channel, which has gained more widespread acceptance. Few individuals (2.5%) are able to switch between multiple tasks without degrading performance (these were called "supertasters" by the study) - meaning that for the vast majority of test subjects (97.5%) suffered performance degradation when they switch between multiple tasks as opposed to being able to work tasks sequentially.

Recent studies have found that driving while texting or speaking on a cell phone is as debilitating as driving while intoxicated, which were not immediately accepted by the public, and few locations have passed ordinances prohibiting driving while distracted - but this, too, is supported by a British study that indicates driving with squabbling children in the vehicle slows brake reaction times by as much as 13% (and no location has yet banned driving with children in the car).

True multitasking, which means doing two things at the same time rather than switching in-between, is very rare and involves lower orders of repetitive motor activity: to bounce a ball while running, or walk and chew gum at the same time, is simple enough for most people. If even one of the tasks involved requires higher levels of concentration, such as walking while sending a text message, the subject either switches attention (pausing while walking to type) or experiences task failure (mistypes his message and/or walks into a wall).

An Overloaded Brain

The author refers to the 2007 study (Small, UCLA) that measured the brain function of Internet surfing, which observed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of individuals when surfing the Web. People who surfed the Web more often showed greater PFC activity even when they were not surfing the Web. People wilt less experience showed an overall increase in PFC activity after a few sessions of surfing. The implication is that the sue of the internet is "rapidly and profoundly" altering the human brain.

This study has been cited by some to underscore the point that "the Internet is reshaping our brains in a bad way," largely due to the cognitive effects of hypertext, which cause a person to click away in the middle of reading something ion order to give their attention to something else - and as a result, we are developing a superficial familiarity with a wider array of topics rather than a deeper understanding of a few, which "weakens our comprehension and transforms us into shallower thinkers."

(EN: I recall a similar study some years prior in which reading had the same effects on the same region of the brain, and the tone of the conclusion was much less panicked. In this instance, reading was thought to "improve" the brain and our cognitive capacity. The suggestion that reading online, especially the choice of the word "altering" rather than "improving," is an inherent bias.)

Further research (Demirbilek) suggests that to cognitive impairment of the personal computer is less intense than that of mobile devices. While this experiment involved standard computers rather than moile devices, it found that individuals who we able to switch between documents in stacked or tiled windows on a screen had better retention than those who switched between documents, each of which was displayed full-screen (the latter of which is common to mobile devices due to the small screen-size). A similar study at the University of Minnesota examines the efficiency of completing a task where multiple sources of information were necessary - and in these instances, those who had the ability to switch between windows on a screen, or to open them in a "tiled" fashion to view two documents at once, were more productive than those who had to switch between full-screen.

However, this stands in contrast to the cognitive impact of cluttered Web interfaces in which the information presented in multiple panels of a screen (such as the navigation panel, advertisements, and other distractions in a "busy" Web page) detracted from comprehension of the main content. In that sense, the lean design of mobile interfaces may be seen to reduce distraction and improve focus and comprehension.

So ultimately, it may be specific to the task being performed as to whether the ability to cross-reference among different content makes the user more or less effective - what is helpful in some instances is distracting in others - and because research tends to be interpreted in the broad sense (assessing the impact of "mobile phones" regardless of what task they are being used to perform), it's unlikely we will find any consensus among researchers.