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No man is an iLand

| Tuesday, September 8, 2015

One of the most popular board games of the 1980s was Trivial Pursuit. Players took turns fielding questions in a variety of subject areas — science, entertainment, sports — to collect tokens for correct answers and eventually make their way around the game board to the finish line. Thrilling, eh? The game was dominated by certain types of nerds who had amassed mountains of useless information. What was the name of Robert E. Lee’s horse? Which British city sits on the prime meridian? Are you more likely to encounter chiropterans at midnight or high noon? With no hesitation, a savvy gamer would respond: Traveler, Greenwich, and midnight (they’re bats), and move smoothly to inevitable victory.

With the advent of smartphones, this game seems, well, trivial, and somewhat pointless. Today you can call on Siri (or Googli, or whatever you call your e-concierge) and get the answer to almost any question in moments. In a world where instant access to information is the norm, Trivial Pursuit is as irrelevant as rolling a hoop with a stick when you can play with a remote-controlled car. Trivial Pursuit rewarded skill in summoning information, however otherwise useless, stored in one’s own brain. In contrast, skill in using devices such as smartphones and tablets to access and download information from the Internet in real time is the hallmark of a modern, connected person. Let’s face it, you do not really think grandma will be Periscope-ing any time soon.

We may have a smug sense of accomplishment in mastering the latest and most popular technology and applications, but let’s ask a simple question: with all these technological innovations, are we getting smarter? The answer depends on what “we” means. Some writers have explored the question by positing a scenario where a time traveler from the late 19th century arrives at the present time. The time traveler asks a series of questions to a person sitting behind a screen, and the seated person is looking at a smartphone. In seconds, the seated person answers each question correctly. The time traveler can only conclude that “we,” i.e., this latest generation of Americans, are smarter than ever.

But suppose we flip the thought experiment by having the smartphone user travel back in time. Once again, he or she sits behind a screen for interrogation by an average, educated, late 19th century resident. Robert E. Lee’s horse? No response. Prime Meridian? Zilch. Chiropterans? Nada. The smartphone user is prepared to solve basic math problems as long as the preloaded calculator app can be accessed and the battery holds out, but there is no Internet. No cell towers, transceivers, switches or roaming charges. Perhaps the smartphone time traveler can at least get rich by betting on some sporting events — who won the 1895 Kentucky Derby? Was there even a Kentucky Derby in 1895? Siri? Why hast thou forsaken me?

The 19th century resident probably speaks a bit of Latin, enjoys opera in the original Italian and has passing knowledge of algebra and calculus. I suggest that if you were to give this person a couple weeks to recover from the initial shock of seeing our current world, he or she could learn to use computers and smartphones and microwave popcorn as well as most of us. Will this person then have become smarter than before? Well, he or se will have acquired a new set of skills using machines that were not available in the 1890s, but how well would we adjust to horse-drawn transportation, handwritten communications and nascent telephony? The point is that we should not confuse the technology of any given time with the intelligence of the then-current inhabitants.

So, back to the question: Are we getting smarter? That’s for each of us to answer, but I think the answer is no if we think intelligence is simply using a search engine to acquire information. That is a helpful skill in today’s world, but our aptitude with technology should never be mistaken for intelligence. Knowing how to use a computer is not the same as knowing how to build a computer, or even knowing how a computer works on a basic level. The use of technology is not necessarily making us less intelligent, though as with any distraction it may prevent us from trying to make sense of all the information we acquire. “We” as a society have certainly expanded the ability to store and access information, but “we” as individuals can only claim to be smarter than those who came before us if we use that information to improve and advance our society.

The net of technology that connects us is more complex than ever, and we owe it to ourselves to make sure we carry within us our own reserves of valued knowledge. We should enjoy the technology of the hyper-connected i-Land of the Internet and smartphones, but we should also be islands of independent knowledge, making our own connections to uncover deeper truths. The pursuit of knowledge — and not just information — is never trivial.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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