By Liz Stillwaggon Swan on June 29th, 2017
Contrarian computer scientist Jaron Lanier writes, “If you observe humans using computer programs that are designated to be “smart,” you will see them make themselves stupid in order to make the programs work” (“1000 Words on Why I Don’t Believe in Machine Consciousness,” available online). We think Lanier is right that as end users of computer programs, we alter our behavior, sometimes drastically, in order to try to accommodate them (think of a person yelling into the phone, “help with online banking!” as the computer blandly replies, “I’m sorry, did you say you’d like to check your account status but don’t have your password?” or some other nonsense reply that doesn’t at all respond to the person’s needs). The central question is this: in which ways are computers making us stupid?
As educators, we’re witnessing a specific example of this phenomenon: the rapid deterioration of writing skills in younger people addicted to social media.
Social media platforms force users to think and write in bit-like form, with acronyms substituting for sentences and emoticons substituting for the expression of feelings. We are learning–some of us more quickly than others–to adapt to a computer-dictated form of communication. Sherry Turkle (M.I.T.) has noted that a fluency with texting and tweeting is commonly correlated with a dearth of skills in face-to-face interactions. We’re noting, in addition, what social media addiction is doing to written communication: specifically, it’s eroding the traditional divide between speaking and writing.
The philosopher Karl Popper believed that modern human society exists not because of oral communication, but as a result of the invention of writing. Writing allows thoughts, as products of mind, to be concretized, shared, critiqued, and improved by others who thereby advance the ability of humans to gain knowledge of their environment and create tools that enable us to stay healthier, and live longer and, hopefully, more productive lives. Writing exponentially increases the memory capacity of human culture. Oral conversational communication, by contrast, remains immediate and shallow with limited memory capacity. It perpetuates untested mythologies, emotional reactions to environmental challenges, and the repetition of non-adaptive social behavior.
Oral conversational communication, by contrast, perpetuates untested mythologies, emotional reactions to environmental challenges, and the repetition of non-adaptive social behavior.
Originally, human social groups were small. Verbal communication was immediate, intimate, and essentially conversational. You recognized the faces of those in your social group and remembered your experiences with the person behind the face. Social communication had an adaptive purpose. With the advent of writing came a new form of social communication among the highly literate: plays, poems, written tracts, novels, and personal letters formed social ties among members of this often geographically dispersed literate social group. Writing enabled communication of a form not available in informal face-to-face vocalization. Writing also ushered in the advent of a more formal kind of analytical thinking that was fundamentally different from conversation.
In the early days of writing, messages had to be carefully crafted and painstakingly delivered from one end of the literate world to another. The message had to be formulated with sufficient clarity to stand the test of the time it would take for the receiver to read the message. Its meaning was frozen in time. But once it had spanned the distance of countries or oceans, the message connected two minds via a single message; ideas were shared and plans were hatched. Those who could write had to think carefully and write well as they were the conveyors of important messages that had to get out of one mind, in one place and time, into another mind, in another place and time, perhaps months later. When the message was read, the time and distance between the two were erased: the effect was to close the distance between the two as their independent minds connected.
Fast forward to 21st century contemporary society. Our tech-enabled communication (e.g., via emails, tweets, and texts) has broken both the space and time barriers; tech-messages are sent and received instantaneously. We send a text from Paris and someone in New York smiles. A movie star tweets about a new love interest and thousands of people immediately tweet in response. But ironically, our ability to communicate instantaneously with each other via our devices has caused a regression in our language skills. Tech-driven communication has blurred the traditional divide between verbal and written communications so that young people write like they speak, and sometimes, lack the skills to do otherwise. Social media have seduced us into transforming the formal, thought-enhancing written form of communication into an impersonal form of oral communication.
We like to think of ourselves as exceptionally smart and even unique in the animal world because of our abstract thought and nuanced communication, especially the quintessentially human examples of creative writing, poetry, philosophy, and literature. None of these can be expressed in texts or tweets. And it would be stupid of us to carelessly lose those human specialties. A truly smart species should be able to utilize tech-communication appropriately, which means not letting it eclipse our hard-earned human skill of real writing. Let’s not let social media make us stupid.