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Do computers change the way we think?

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Sandra Vogel Sandra Vogel | 10:14 UK time, Monday, 30 January 2012

What did you do the last time you wanted to check up on something? Did you ask around among people you know? Did you read it in a book - at home or in the library? Did you hunt around to find a specialist who could give you a definitive answer? Or did you type a couple of words into a search engine and see what came out?

Increasingly we take the latter option, and from a pure efficiency point of view it's not difficult to see why. Many of us have broadband now, which gives us fast internet access. Our computers might be in the living room, and may be switched on more than they are switched off. If we are out and about, we've mobile phones which can access the internet. We have constant access to powerful search engines.

So, it's a simple – and quick – matter to tap in a search term and see what comes out.

There are times when the internet can provide information it is very difficult or time consuming to get from other sources. Researching a medical condition is one example (though it's important to take care to go to reliable sources, avoid hype and treble check your facts if you do this). Reading multiple reviews of films or books that interest you is something else it's easier to research online. You most likely have others from your own personal experience.

But we also use computers to check up on mundane, everyday things that in earlier times we might have kept in our heads. How many telephone numbers and addresses of friends and relatives can you remember and how many do you rely on being stored in your phone?

As far as the internet is concerned, there is a strong case that it is simply continuing a situation that has been going on ever since the 'mass media' became a reality. Television news, for example, usually doesn't deliver in-depth analysis. It reports on what has happened. Even news analysis programmes don't go deep into the finer detail. If you want to get behind what's happening in areas of current affairs which are important to you, then you need to do your own research. So, the argument goes, modern media can act as a 'dumbing down' agent.

A counter-argument is that the internet is completely the opposite of television. Rather than simply 'feeding' you with information that you absorb in a one-way interaction, the internet opens things up and allows for a more explorative approach. For example, you can use the internet to research those deeper details of current affairs issues which concern or interest you. Many people find the internet invaluable as a research resource for all kinds of local, national and international topics.

These two arguments aren't mutually exclusive. The reality is that sometimes we use computers and the internet in particular as a one way source of information, at other times we use it more expansively.

There is another side to all this, and it is a neurological one. How do computers affect the ways in which our brains work?

There are research reports which suggest that we think differently if we have prolonged exposure to computers, that we lose our capacity for empathy with other people, that we live more in the day-to -day and stop thinking critically about things.

Even the former Chief Executive of Google, Eric Schmidt is on the record as having said , in 2010 at the World Economic Forum in Davos:

"As the world looks to these instantaneous devices... you spend less time reading all forms of literature, books, magazines and so forth... That probably has an effect on cognition, probably has an effect on reading."

In everyday life it can be difficult to assess a view like this. We just get on with things, rather than sitting back and wondering whether computers are changing the ways in which we think. But you could try doing a little test on yourself. Remember that question I asked earlier about the telephone numbers and addresses? Well, how many do you know by heart?

You can also find out about the effect of the web on young brains in Hajar Javaheri's blog.

Sandra Vogel is a technology journalist who has written for many web sites and magazines. She's written several books on computing. As well as technology she enjoys running, growing vegetables and playing the saxophone.


  • Comment number 1.

    I work on computers every day and some evenings to, have had a kean interest in them since the very young age of 11 (I'm now 24). I can remember almost all of my family's home telephone numbers - however the same can't be said for addresses. I'm ashamed to say I had to text my Step Dad, to get my Mums address to post a mothers day card. All the addresses I do remember, haven't changed since leaving home.

    Would I have remembered it, if I wasn't using the comptuer everyday? I think its quite unlikely. I know where she lives (along way away) and can drive there.

    As for reading generally - I find it hard to read pieces of text for any great length of time if they aren't of significant interest to me, but again I probably wouldn't even be looking at text that didn't interest me at all, if I hadn't been on the internet in the first place.

    Generally - I think the effects are positive. It allows us all to lead more organised lives, it takes a lot of pain out of otherwise monotemous tasks and allows us to be closer to our friends and family than ever before, regardless of how far away they are. Its also become a land of oportunity for anyone, the American Dream is now more of an 'Internet Dream'.


  • Comment number 2.

    I don't agree that "in earlier times we... kept in our heads" phone numbers and postal addresses. We didn't. We wrote them down. And there's good reason to record: memory is notoriously deceptive and unreliable. (Mine is not good so I keep a paper dictionary close by for correcting spellings and a well-worn thesaurus for similes and alternatives; I don't like auto-correction.)

    Recording stuff is probably the single most important behaviour that humanity has evolved --- because it promotes collaborative learning and accumulation of knowledge. A prerequisite for recording is literacy. But in the UK, not all kids leaving primary school (at age 11 years) are literate: about one in five boys can't read or write, and roughly one in three kids leave school inadequately prepared in reading, writing and arithmetic [source: ] so "merely" typing into a search engine is not possible. UK adults have much the same (or worse) numeracy and literary capability.

    Moreover, typing into a search engine does nothing to develop meta-cognitive ability --- meaning: skill in assessment and evaluation. This is important because the internet lacks veracity and intelligence. Access to reliable, relevant, accurate reputable and permenent resources is vital; the internet can't spot that you're asking the wrong question or that there's no answer or that it's offering conjecture. But an intelligent educated human can.

    We know this. That's why we talk to each other more than we write. And kids know this too. They are good at talk: asking questions when they don't know what to do next, or want to know how to do something. Talking avoids reading and writing --- but always provides opportunity for development of metacognition. Computers and the web can't do this so they can't change the way we think. 

    In fact, science is a better example because it does "change the way we think": it enables us to find an answer where none exists (through experimentation) and continually provides paradigm shifts in how we see the world and understand it. Computers and the internet merely do stuff quickly


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