Last summer, I was amazed to watch my five-year-old daughter get on her first bicycle and immediately ride it like she had been doing it all her life. She didn’t need a push first or someone to hold on and give her a sense of safety. There were no crashes, skinned knees, or tears. Dumbfounded, I wondered: how did she do it? It turns out that for a year beforehand, she had used what’s called a “balance bike” at her preschool–a short, small bike with no pedals. On a balance bike, a child uses their feet to push off the ground and get some momentum. Then they pull their feet up to ride until they eventually slow down. Essentially, she learned to ride a full-sized bicycle by being forced to balance a bicycle from day one, without ever using the crutch of training wheels.
Many people assume that computer technology is helping to make us all smarter and more efficient. Our computerized phones are called “smartphones” because their computing power and software enables them to accomplish complex tasks computers twenty years ago couldn’t do. Consequently, it is assumed, a smartphone can help you to achieve smarter, more complex goals. However, it is quite likely that the opposite is true. In reality, our computer technology is a crutch that often does not train us to think, remember, and solve problems diligently, but results in our minds becoming lazy. What’s worse, the whizz-bang features of computers fool us into thinking they are more efficient, when they actually introduce problems that even reduce our efficiency.
This idea is by no means a new one.
Socrates, almost 2,500 years ago, contested that books (i.e., writing things down) would be a net negative to the human mind. Quoting the King of Thebes, who was allegedly first presented with the technology of writing, Socrates said that writing “will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of their trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.” This would result in “the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality” and “enable [people] to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part, they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so”. In fact, Socrates was even more concerned with losing the human element of learning, in which you come to truly understand something through dialogue with a teacher who helps you to authentically grasp the topic. The irony, of course, is that we know Socrates said these things only because Plato wrote it down. However, Socrates is proven correct by the fact that I had to look up the quote. Having a copy of Phaedrus handy means I never need to memorize what Socrates said, and even more alarming, I can produce a quote that makes me appear wise without truly considering the ideas behind that quote.
Of course, it hardly seems reasonable to throw out all our books. One might object that Socrates was blaming books when he ought to blame poor readers and bad thinkers. Yet, doesn’t it seem obvious that the incentives to memorize something or to sit down and talk with a teacher are greatly reduced when the information is easily accessible in a book?
The answer to this conundrum is supplied by Neil Postman, who wrote about “media ecologies.” Postman showed that the medium by which we transmit information shapes and forms the working of our minds and the very way we think about the information being transmitted. Whether it’s the written word in a book, the spoken word on the radio, or the visual/audial recordings on TV or social media, each of these mediums “directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world” in a way that is peculiar to that particular medium. The particular features of a given medium, working together, its total “ecology,” deeply affects our perception of reality itself and even our ability to recognize and acknowledge the truth.
Computers, as a medium for storing, retrieving, and presenting information mould the way we think about and receive that information. For example, the words in a computer file are transient and cheap. You can easily type out a sentence and with a single keystroke delete it all. Your decisions about what words to use are not carefully considered because you can easily delete those words and type new ones. However, even poorly chosen words can be perceived as good enough, when, they may not be. The time sunk into typing them tempts us to inflate their perceived value. Contrast this with writing on a piece of paper with a pen, especially when that piece of paper already has several paragraphs on it. If you do not carefully choose your words, there is no erasing the pen-strokes. You will be forced to either live with those words or mar the page with some pretty ugly blotting out of those words. Therefore, with paper and pen, you have every incentive to thoroughly think about what you’re going to write before you actually write it. And this is just one aspect of each of these mediums that greatly affects the way we handle the information transmitted through them! Consider the many different features of a computer that affect the way you interact with the information on it: quick access to nearly limitless information on the internet, regularly incoming notifications about email and text messages, the allure of a video game only two or three clicks away. The computer, as a medium of information, does not bring that information to us in a neutral, sterile, unaffected manner, but filtered through the entire experience of its total ecology.
I am not demonizing computers. I work with them daily and they are useful for certain tasks. However, I advocate that you first seek to understand the impact the computer medium has on the way you view the world and the information you receive. Second, I advocate that you strongly consider reducing your dependence on computers as much as possible. Computers have their place, but your mind’s ability to recall, formulate, and communicate information will be more robust as you decrease your use of computers.
Much of my work relies on preparing to speak to groups of people. I used to do nearly all my preparation on a computer. My research and study used sophisticated software. I would type what I intended to say in a full manuscript, which I then committed to memory. However, over a year ago, I decided to go as low-tech as I could. I went back to using physical books for my research. I started taking all my notes on 6″x4″ notecards. Instead of typing up an entire manuscript of what I planned to say, I started using those same notecards to write the most relevant information, a key turn of phrase, and shorthand to help me keep my direction. At first, I had some anxiety about this approach and there was a learning curve. However, the result has been stunning. I finish my research and I am able to prepare my spoken delivery in about half the time it used to take me. I receive more positive feedback for my work more frequently than I used to. Eliminating my use of a computer, in doing this work, has been tremendously positive.
What explains this phenomenon? I think of the bicycle training wheels my daughter never used. If she had used them, they would have taught her there are no consequences for imbalance on a bike. They would have trained her muscles to relax when they should have been working. They would have given her the illusion she could ride a bicycle when in reality she was barely doing what is necessary to ride it. In a similar way, this is the effect a computer can have on your mind’s ability to think, remember, solve problems, and work efficiently. The computer removes the consequences of not carefully considering your thoughts. The computer trains your memory to relax instead of getting stronger. It gives you the illusion you can solve problems when so often you’re simply asking Google to solve them for you. The high-tech wizardry makes you think you are doing things efficiently, but the moment you have to use your mind without the computer, you are actually less prepared and less well-equipped to do so. In short, the computer is too often a crutch that holds you back from actually using your brain, and eliminating that crutch forces your mind to get sharper again.