Is digitalisation dumbing us down?

The Anti-Flynn Effect

Digitalisation & Technology, 05.07.2021

To quote the American science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, “progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” Whether this is true or not, the fact is that digitisation is often associated with terms such as “client focus” and “customer journey”, i.e. with building solutions that are very close to and around people. But might simplification also be causing us to lose certain abilities, or even leading us toward digital dementia? Is digitalisation dumbing us down? That is the topic of the following blog post by Mark Klein, CDO of ERGO Group.

ERGO CDO Mark Klein

Author: Mark Klein, CDO ERGO Group

Mark Klein has been ERGO's Chief Digital Officer since 2016. Previously, he was head of T-Mobile Netherlands. His main task at ERGO is the digital transformation of traditional business in Germany and abroad. He is establishing new, digital business models.

Mark Klein on LinkedIn

What do schools in Silicon Valley look like? How do the children of the digital pioneers – i.e. the generation that created Apple, Google and Microsoft – learn? Are the schools digital temples, virtual learning worlds for the inventors of tomorrow? No. Actually the opposite. For example, at Canterbury Christian School in Los Altos, there are no computers, no Echos, and no learning databases. The school is completely analogue, with blackboards, books and classroom teaching. And there is a long waiting list for new admissions.

Some critics see the techie kids’ schools as direct proof that digitalisation makes people stupid. How could it not, when even the inventors of the digital age are trying to protect their children from bits and bytes? And yes, it's true, digitalisation does cause countless problems and even harms children, either directly or indirectly. For example, children who are heavy consumers of digital media are demonstrably less attentive. Their learning suffers accordingly, because they lose sight of the essentials and cannot cognitively cope as well with prolonged tasks.

They also lose their social attentiveness and their sensory abilities, and are less physically active. And: even children are now becoming increasingly short-sighted, because their eye muscles are only trained for short distances. In some Asian countries, two thirds or more of young people already wear glasses.

So should we be cutting out digital devices altogether? That would be the logical conclusion, but it’s not that simple.

From the Flynn-Effect to the Anti-Flynn Effect

We humans are getting smarter all the time. Our IQ has grown steadily in the 20th century – a phenomenon also known as the Flynn effect. Our intelligence quotient has climbed by 30 points. The reasons are not only more knowledge and better knowledge processing, but also better nutrition, better medical care and better educational opportunities.

In the 1970s, however, the “Anti-Flynn Effect” occurred: our IQ has been declining again ever since, albeit only slightly. Scientists believe that our dwindling intelligence – which is expected to continue in the coming years – is rooted in our modern lifestyle. Besides nutrition and environmental factors, a change in our media use is allegedly also playing a role.

For me, one of the most exciting explanations for the Flynn effect is that intelligence increases in society when people observe and learn from each other, and look to role models for their behaviour. According to the theory, copying from others is useful; IQ grows when members of a society need and reward each other. My conclusion is that digital media unfortunately has what it takes to reinforce the anti-Flynn effect. Passively consuming games and media – everywhere and all the time – certainly will not make you smarter.
On the other hand, digitalisation can also contribute to the actual Flynn effect because the opportunities for copying have become much greater. Ted Talks & co. enable us to keep learning as adults, podcasts give us historical knowledge, and tutorials help us with everyday tasks. 

The "use it or lose it" principle

Anyone who has ever been bedridden with a broken leg knows that muscles can start to weaken within a few weeks. Everything that you had painstakingly built up is suddenly gone. Our bodies are perfectly efficient; they shut down whatever they don't need. And our brain cells – or rather our synapses, the connections between our nerve cells – work the same way.

The connections only develop and strengthen if we constantly use them – and they weaken or disappear if we don’t. Babies, for example, are born with far more synapses than adults. If we don't use them, the body deactivates them: in other words, people unlearn what they don't need. The mechanics behind this are also called the “use it or lose it” principle.

Of course, the fact that we can forget certain skills is not something that we can blame on digitalisation alone. But it does of course play a part. Nobody drives to their vacation destination with a map on their lap any more. The ability to read maps is a skill that we simply no longer need. Google Maps does it for us.

Even being able to park a car will soon no longer be necessary; more and more on-board computers can do it just as well. Are you the type who learns foreign words by heart, because leafing through a dictionary takes too much time? That, too, is no longer an argument since Leo, Google, Translator and others have taken over. Digital assistants can remind you of your next check-up at the dentist, and can even book you in for a polishing appointment at the same time. Writing down appointments in your diary, or tying a string around your finger, have become obsolete.

Yes, it's true – we do unlearn certain skills that technology performs for us. But so what! In the course of history, we humans have probably unlearned thousands of skills. I personally would no longer dare to hunt buffalo with a spear, or try to light a fire without a match. Those abilities are all gone; we simply don't need them any more. On the other hand, digital assistants add value in many places. 

New opportunities through language programs

Learning vocabulary is a good example. When you learn a new word, you build bridges in your memory and help your brain remember. With digital dictionaries that offer translations as you write, you no longer need the memory bridge – on the one hand. Yet on the other hand, digital learning programs offer new possibilities that were not available before. You can learn with all your senses, because the program works with pictures, video and audio, and thus builds new mnemonic bridges which may allow you to learn languages faster. 

What’s more, the digital tools help all those students who are afraid to speak in class because their accent is poor, or because they might make mistakes in front of their fellow learners. I can well imagine that the ability to get to a certain level with a learning program first, would increase many people’s motivation to try out a new language.

Though the situation with Google Maps or navigation systems is a little different. Google tells us where to go – and our brain shifts into neutral. Several studies have suggested that this actively drains our sense of direction. So if the GPS suddenly breaks down, we’re stuck. My sense of orientation is one skill that I don't want to delegate to technology. But I don't have to pull out the old maps just yet. Even switching off the navigation system every now and then and trying to find your way around, for example by remembering certain buildings, trains your sense of direction.

“The recipe is not to banish all digital media, but to use them responsibly. ”

Mark Klein, CDO ERGO Group

We need rules – as we always have!

The fact that we can forget certain skills has always existed. That is not a digital problem per se. However, smartphones and tablets are making it easier and easier to unlearn things. That’s why the old adage applies even more to the digital world: it needs rules! I have to lay down the law, for myself and for my family, about how far I want our smartphones to dictate our lives.

It is obvious that our sense of intuition suffers when we are constantly on call, or when we can no longer hear real birds because the chirping of our smartphone promises a bigger reward: i.e. some kind of important news. And the ability to cooperate with others to solve problems also decreases as a result of digital media, according to researchers.
Five years ago, digital detoxing might have been something for the esoteric scene, but in the meantime it has become a standard part of my family’s daily and annual routines. We have to take care of skills that we want to keep. Our brains need to be constantly occupied. If we take jobs away from our brains, they begin to wither. We have to be aware of this phenomenon, and keep it in mind when using digital assistants. A game of cards in the family, without smartphones, can work wonders.

However, the recipe is not to banish all digital media, but to use them responsibly. The internet provides an “immeasurable amount of stimuli”, says neuropsychologist Gerhard Roth, adding that “intelligent use of digital media (...) can have an enormously invigorating effect on the brain.”

Incidentally, we humans are extremely adaptable. We can always regain any lost abilities. If you played tennis in your childhood, you can remember that skill again decades later. It's the same with your sense of direction. So don't worry if your mobile doesn't have reception while you're on the road. You’ll be fine!

Text: Mark Klein, CDO ERGO Group AG

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