education philosopher

On what Intelligence Is, or At Least What It Isn’t

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 22, 2015

Today, I watched a really intriguing Intelligence Squared Debate on the motion of “Smart Technology is Making us Dumb.” For the affirmative, Nicholas Carr and Andrew Keen argued; for the negative, Steven Weinberger and Genevieve Bell. For my part, I agreed the most with Genevieve Bell, whose main point was that there is a lot more to the story than whether it IS making us smart or stupid, mostly because there are a lot of smart technologies and a lot of ways we can use those technologies. I agreed least with Andrew Keen, whose conservative persective seemed to be that if we can find even a few ways “we” are using technology in ways he thinks aren’t substantive (twitter seems his favorite example), then that settles the matter.

But one thing I noticed is that the debate really hinges on what we mean by ‘smart,” “dumb” and for that matter, “intelligence.” Carr seemed to tie these things to short-term memory and attention; Weinberger seemed to argue that all intelligence requires is having access to information.Here is a comment I wrote below the debate that may be interesting to share here. (And, of course, check out the debate to form your own conclusions.)

Warning: since you are reading this on a blog, Keen may accuse you of being stupider for it.


In this debate, there was some talk about clarifying terms, like distinguishing between information and knowledge, or distinguishing what we mean by ‘smart technology.’

But there was one distinction I think was most needed that was never addressed: distinguishing what we mean by ‘smart,’ ‘dumb’ or really just ‘intelligence.’ To say that smart technology is making us dumb or less intelligent, one needs to have an idea of what we mean by that. And to be blunt, I think Nicholas Carr’s idea of what intelligence is is about as wrong-headed as one can get.

Several times, Carr brings up attention and memory, and the idea that we can only hold so much in short-term memory and that technology is both taxing our short-term memory and making it hard to hold attention.

But that is sort of where he stops. It is as if he is implying that taxing short-term memory and attention span means that we are becoming stupider for that. But while attention span and short-term memory may be necessary conditions for intelligence (and I’m not sure how much that’s true, even), they surely aren’t sufficient.

There is’t really much agreement on how to define intelligence, but most definitions I’ve seen have something to do with the ability to solve problems. Now, to solve problems, you need to have the attention to do that, and maybe (depending on the problem) hold things in short-term memory.

But solving problems often relies on what tools I have around me. I am smarter at math when I have a paper and pencil in front of me, and maybe even smarter still when i have a calculator in front of me. So, to the extent that smart technology can help us solve problems, then as long as intelligence is defined by our ability to solve problems, it seems that smart technology at least COULD make us smarter.

But that also depends on defining what we mean by solving problems. Do we mean – as Carr seems to want – the ability to solve problems in our heads only? Is a person smart in math only to the degree that she can do the math in her head? Or is she smarter with a calculator because we are allowing that ‘smart’ means ‘able to solve a problem and use the tools around you to do it’?

I could see arguments both ways. If someone solves a math problem by putting digits into a calculator and churning out a solution, it seems like we can say that she might not be as smart as someone who understands what she is doing enough to do the problem without a calculator. But surely, one can understand conceptually what equation is needed and put it into the calculator, and that would make your ability to deal with large numbers a whole lot better. That seems to mean you are smarter. (So, maybe the problem is not the technology, but that the technology sometimes provides incentive for us not to learn things like the conceptual understanding of the math we are doing via calculator. But that’s different from saying that calculators are making us stupider.

It also seems odd to say that one is only smart if one can do a problem fully on one’s own without help from technology. My contractor uses a pretty hefty computer program to figure out a lot of stuff to do with the measurements of what he is working on and the price it will cost him to order the necessary parts for a project. I’m not sure it makes any sense to say that he is stupider because he uses this tool to solve problems than he’d be if he did the problems either in his head or with paper and pencil (especially when his chance of erring in calculation seems higher with the latter two options.)

I am not really trying to solve the debate here. I think addressing what we mean by intelligence would have brought the discussants a lot closer to a more productive dialogue.

Last thing. Let’s say Carr is correct that intelligence depends on short-term memory. Okay, well our short-term memory unaided by technology is not terribly great. It is much better at things like spatial memory and procedural memory, and much less at declarative memory for things like number sequences. (You will be able to remember the layout of a house you’ve learned only 10 minutes ago better than a 10 digit sequence of random digits in all likelihold.)

SO, at least one thing technology can do that makes us smarter is frees up our limited (to four chunks or so of info) short-term memory for stuff it is good at by offloading stuff it is bad at. I can remember where I put a sticky note better than I can the information on the sticky note. So, if I use Google Keep to put down “sticky notes,” it seems obvious that the technology made me smarter, because now, I only have to remember where I put those notes. Same with facebook: sometimes, I clip articles and put them on my facebook wall for later retreival. And it seems strange to say that because I used facebook to do it, that somehow makes me dumber.

And last but not least, I haven’t addressed Andrew Keen’s arguments, because strawmanning is not an argument, but a fallacy


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