Why technology might not make children stupid, after all

All this newfangled technology is going to make young people stupid.

This is a very old argument, dating back (at least) to 370-ish BC, when Plato wrote the The Phaedrus. Like the better-known Republic, Phaedrus is written as a conversation between the character of Socrates and other people. At one point, Socrates tells a legend of an Egyptian god who invents writing and tries to give the gift of the written word to a wise king. The king is ... less than enthused.

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Basically, all these damn books are going to make the kids dumb. This is usually my go-to story that I bring up whenever somebody is fretting too much about how the Internet will totally make kids stupid. But journalist Annie Murphy Paul has found an even better argument against techno-fear. At her blog, she quotes an interview with Jay Giedd, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health:

Interviewer: So how well are our children handling multi-tasking in a digital age that changes, seemingly, by the hour? Early evidence suggests: pretty well. In fact, the human brain has a track record of successfully adapting to challenges it wasn’t initially designed to take on—such as reading.

Giedd: It’s sobering to realize most humans that have lived and died have never read. And so, we’ve been able to change what our brain does based on having the written word and having this environment. And so now the question is will we be able to change to keep up with the new flood of information coming from all kinds of sources. And up until now the human brain has done a great job of changing—adapting to these environments, but there are limitations to this capacity. And so it will be very interesting to see that these so-called digital natives… the children that have grown up never not knowing the multimedia devices… whether their brains will be able to adapt differently than older people.

You can read a larger excerpt of the interview on Paul's site, but the general gist is this: We might be missing the point when we worry about whether technology has gotten ahead of what our brains evolved to do. What our brains evolved to do is adapt. New technologies change the way we think—the shift from memorization to reading certainly did that. But that's not the same thing as making us stupid or stifling our capacity for creative thought. Instead, we take these tools and we find new ways to be creative. We take the tools and we use them to expand our knowledge of the world. It's what we did with books. Maybe we'll do the same thing with the Internet-rich, multi-tasking world we're building now.

Image: Kids using the computers., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from sanjoselibrary's photostream

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