Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Is our native intelligence being burdened by increasing complexity?

Are People Getting Dumber?: The World Grows More Complex” presents one of the funniest social commentaries I’ve ever read. At another level, I know it’s not a funny issue of course. Rather, this turns out to be an interesting one to think about. Here is an excerpt as written by Linda S. Gottfredson, a professor in the School of Education who studies the sociology of intelligence at the University of Delaware:

Many of us feel stupider by the year, if not the week. Age and ill health take their toll, but Mother Nature isn’t the culprit. It’s those clever people busily complicating our lives, innovation by innovation, upgrade upon upgrade. They don’t lower our native intelligence, but relentlessly burden it… Just ask a humorist. One “Frank and Ernest” comic strip shows a caveman pointing to an engraved stone tablet and saying: “Look! I just invented writing!” His companion says: “Thanks a lot! You just made everybody else in the world illiterate!”

Gottfredson’s portrayal of the situation counters the stance taken by James R. Flynn (of the Flynn Effect – the interpretation of which is disputable as well) who says that collective intelligence increases as we deal with the requisite demands of complex, modern life.

Curve of IQ evolution during History. Correlat...

Curve of IQ evolution during History. Correlation of the Flynn effect and observation of Dickens en Spensdale versus limit declared by Jensen. How intelligence has grown during Ages and how we observe a possible actual limit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are plenty of arguments for and against the idea that people are becoming dumber as laid out in “Are People Getting Dumber?” For example, Ritch Duncan points out that the situation may only appear this way due to the availability heuristic. He states:

Because of the Internet, the really dumb things that people do — even people of average intelligence — get amplified almost instantaneously. You can get a perfect score on your SATs and it will barely register in a world of 200 million tweets a day. But give just one stupid answer in a beauty pageant, and you’ll be the laughingstock of the world before you have time to clear your name on the next morning’s “Today” show. And while watching something smart takes time, you can see something stupid in a flash. Today at work, when I had a spare moment, I didn’t try to learn a new language. I watched a video of a guy getting a tattoo removed with an air-blast sander. And now I know that’s not a very good idea. If anything, people are getting more sophisticated in using our insatiable desire for stupidity to their advantage.

Let’s entertain the scenario proposed by Gottfredson is for a moment however. In spite of this, does this make a previous way of life more desirable? Whether we are talking about work or play, I have yet to encounter one person who would rather return to a technologically simpler, past way of life (hunting and gathering, farming, etc.) after having lived in the modern world, and even given the pressures and unemployment problem we’re experiencing.

When asked, people state how life before modern times involved working even longer hours and/or backbreaking work in order to make ends meet. It’s also difficult not to prefer a world in which there are numerous ways to make a living. However, I’m still looking out for alternative opinions on this matter, and so I invite readers to weigh in with their thoughts. What era would you prefer to live and work in? Why?

3 responses to “Is our native intelligence being burdened by increasing complexity?

  1. Mike December 16, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Very interesting. Some psychologists have added the cell phone to the list of things that harm intelligence or at least diminish students’ ability to focus and perform. Thanks for the interesting story.

    • Lynn Patra December 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm

      Yeah, cell phones have definitely been a mixed blessing. Some additional downsides: Numerous people including myself experience headaches after prolonged conversations with them held up against one’s head (so I try to use headphones as a preventative measure). Secondly, as long as they are not completely off, they are a real petri dish for bacteria. In sum, there are some health issues here.

      Thanks for sharing that study Mike!

  2. Mike December 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Good points!

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