Skip to content

Is smart tech making us dumb?

TechA giant humpback whale breaching the waves right in front of you is a magnificent sight – a once in a lifetime experience. Photographer Eric Smith recently captured such a sighting on camera, but it went viral for all the wrong reasons: as those aboard looked on in wonder, a man was flicking through Facebook on his mobile phone and missed the entire thing. The photographer told CBS News that a whale and her calf were “flapping, breaching, jumping, mouths eating fish,” but the man never budged. He has five photographs of the man who was busy with his phone as the whales danced around the surface of the boat. The caption below the picture on multiple sites reads: “A sign of the times?”

Similarly, Microsoft recently pitted a goldfish against a millennial in a proverbial ‘stare-down’ – a game of who can focus longer? The goldfish won. Studies link the goldfish’s victory (and our increasing distraction) to our growing dependence on disruptive technologies that bombard our thought processes and demand our attention. Is it true that smarter technology is making us all dumber – and if it is – should we be worried? Is there a need for businesses to do something about it? What would happen if we invested the time technology saves us more wisely?

Thinking slower to work better

TechDaniel Kahneman’s seminal book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, contains the central thesis that there are two modes of thought: ‘System 1’ is fast, instinctive and emotional; ‘System 2’ is slower, more deliberative and more logical. Difficulties arise when we try to solve large, complex problems using fast ‘System 1’ thinking. When ‘System 2’ thinking is deliberately put in to action, with the brain given enough time to allow it to percolate, great things can be achieved. In fact, many of the smart technologies that stand accused of dumbing down a generation would have been designed using ‘System 2’ thinking.

What if the time we gain from new technologies could be put to good use in pursuit of slower thinking? In future, the organisations that embrace a two-speed work environment will be the ones that thrive. They will save time by utilising the most relevant and up-to-date digital technologies, many of which will then be operated using more automatic, faster ‘System 1’ thinking. But rather than instinctively using these time savings to cut costs, forward-thinking companies will reinvest this money back into the processes that require slower, ‘System 2’ thinking.

Companies that follow a Design Thinking approach already work in this considered way. They appreciate the long-term value that’s derived from seeking to solve design problems through thoughtful, human-conscious methods. They harness the best of both the digital and human worlds by respecting the output from each.

More complicated than it sounds

We have been programmed to believe that time is money, hence a quick project (or quick answer) is a good project. But this is more complicated than it sounds and requires us to stay in the problem longer. We all have a propensity to jump to a solution as quickly as possible. It’s uncomfortable staying perplexed. The boom of yesteryear saw us all put our faith in getting things done quickly quickly quickly, yet in today’s environment we find ourselves face to face with some really complex problems which have too many moving parts. Quick thought doesn’t allow one to consider all of the issues and to truly understand the problem. “Move fast” and “Agility” have become the new business mantras, yet Einstein famously said: “It’s not that I am so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer…”

In a world where volatility is the new norm, thinking deeply enough and long enough will allow us to come up with something truly differentiated .

Google X, the software giant’s secret “moonshot” lab, where they seek to create world-changing ideas, promotes this type of ‘System 2’ thinking. The company culture encourages its workers to chat, be curious and creative. Google glasses and self-driving cars would never have generated enough oxygen to leave the incubator if they had based their innovative design approach on speedy ‘System 1’ thinking.

In navigating our digital future and mulling over how best to help staff and customers win the proverbial ‘stare-downs’ in the years ahead, there is a desperate need for slower, more deliberate thinking through some of the most complex problems the world has ever faced. Reinvesting the time technology saves us into ‘System 2’ thinking could be the elixir that helps smart companies move ahead in the innovation race and turn a sign of the times into business advantage. Who knows – they may even be able to re-invent the goldfish bowl altogether.

Click here to subscribe to Just Imagine.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
What it’s like to work at Google

7 replies »

  1. Making us dumb? I don’t know. But it certainly makes us lazier.

    Excuse me while I try to figure out the robot question below… X times 6 = 48

    *pulls out calculator*

  2. This is an interesting article, and highlights the importance that it pays to take time and care over problems.

    However, there is evidence that dual-process (system 1 / system 2) thinking isn’t the best explanation for how we solve problems – UNSW is amongst leading universities in Australia and the US that believe that a single-process model offers a better explanation, and they are conducting research to try and establish which model does.

    Regardless of single-process or dual-process thinking, you still need to have tools, skills and knowledge available to help solve the problem. A “second system” won’t just magically kick in. And what’s interesting and important about Google’s Moonshot lab is that they don’t punish for failed projects, so people can try out risky ideas. This allows staff to take time and develop ideas, even in a commercial environment.

    Thought-provoking stuff.

    • Thanks Christian. I’d be interested in learning more about the UNSW research. I attended a breakfast seminar this morning on ‘Demystifying creativity and unlocking potential’. There was a discussion about being creative when under time pressure. The point was made by the panel of experts that good problem-solving takes time to ideate and evaluate. It was a great reminder that, regardless of methodology, creativity is as much about perspiration as it is inspiration.

  3. If less observant about the things that happen around us is a synonym for dumber, then yes, we are getting dumber.
    Our need for electronic stimuli to provide instant gratification means that many of us have lost the ability to observe and focus. This is a vicious circle, as the media serves shorter and shorter soundbites to keep information digestible and competitive, hence people receive less and less information.
    However, it’s not only about quantity on information, it’s about quality. Fewer and fewer people are able to distinguish good information from bad information, because they seem to be losing the skill of critical thinking and interrogating things dished up as “facts”.

  4. I think it is making us dumber. We are so reliable on technology that we can’t figure stuff out for ourselves. Our it is taking us “forever” sometimes.

  5. Blake Morrow – that was exactly what I was thinking. Lazy and over-reliant on technology.
    I don’t believe it makes us dumber or smarter – it just means we can do things differently and generally faster.
    I have lost track of the number of times (maybe there is an app for that) I have reviewed someone’s work, found the results made no sense and when queried they respond “but the program gave me that answer”. Total reliance on the program with no self review of the answer
    Example – flood modelling that showed that flood levels had been lowered after filling in half a creek. Even a cursory check should have set off alarms that the input data needed to be checked but no – “the program gave that answer”

  6. There are three (3) fundamental principles and/or facts that appear to be regularly missed, forgotten or not even thought of:
    (a) Common sense is not so common anymore;
    (b) You don’t know what you don’t know; and
    (c) General knowledge is quite appalling these days.

    There seems to be a dangerous trend such as that which Ross Tanner has quite rightly pointed out i.e. ‘No cursory checks to set off alarms ……. etc.’ This (the latter) is a case of (quote): ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.