I had a teacher in Jr. High who was rather crotchety. He held strong opinions on many a social ill.  I am pretty sure his daily complaints were the real joy in his life. One of his habitual rants that stuck in my head centered on the fact that calculators made our minds dull. He called it the “idiot box”. He didn’t want us to use calculators as it was certain that our mental faculties would deteriorate.  I always thought his diatribe was rather misplaced as I found the calculator an invaluable tool to get the job done and move on with life.

The problem with his sentiment boils down to identifying what is the meaning of intelligence. (As a side note if you haven’t read Jeff Hawkins’ book On Intelligence it is a must. The implications for computing are enormous.) Much the same way we learn to read by first learning letters, then words, then sentences, then paragraphs, then finally books, our intelligence leverages the little things we already know to work with larger thoughts and ideas.  The ability to synthesize a hypothesis – extrapolate from what we already know- is the hallmark of intelligence.

I recently read an article by Steve Olenski regarding How Google Affects Our Memory. His concern is the decline in our ability to recall data because of having easy access to the data. However, I see this as a concern that doesn’t really matter. The long-term goal isn’t to recall facts but to formulate ideas.  Much like my Jr. High teacher, the fallacy in the article is misappropriating the value of the data – as if the data by itself has value. But data without concepts to tie it together is meaningless bits. For example, is it more important to remember the dates of the civil war or the fundamental concepts of the cause of conflict, what it says about human nature, and how not to repeat it?  Is it more important to remember a person’s contact information or a better way of interacting with them?

Steve Olenski is right – the internet, Google, and mobile device are most assuredly affecting our cognitive process – but in many positive ways. I for one welcome this new ‘idiot box’ I carry in my pocket. It functions as a tool to retain facts for me that I consider the minor details. It gives me the mind space to work on higher-order problems. Not only that, I can access the data faster than ever and rule out false ideas from positive ones. Instead of looking for an encyclopedia I can spend time thinking about how mobility and the ability to access instantly many different data streams will take us to new places.

How about you – do you think the ability to use tools such as mobile devices, Google, and the internet help make us smarter?