Smartphones killed the fabulist


In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.

14 thoughts on “Smartphones killed the fabulist

  1. Razib,

    Two interesting questions come up from Carr’s article that should be considered:

    1. Do smartphones have a disparate impact upon the IQ curve? i.e. those of greater impulse control and intelligence benefit tremendously from them, while those with average to below intelligence and impulse control suffer grievously compared to if they never had it.

    2. Are the fact checking powers of smartphones greater or equal than the power they have to form/foment ultra-tribalized, ultra-conformist, fact resistant social networks?

  2. Fairly frequently the local print media here come out with some new ‘moral panic’ story along the lines of the latest one: “HK Children At Risk from Too Much Screen Time.” Well, they would, wouldn’t they? They are rapidly going out of business because of screens. Plus, you don’t need a four year university ‘research study’ to figure out that if your kid spends 100% of his time outside of school either watching TV or playing computer games, zero time playing outside games or swimming or whatever and interacting with other kids, and not getting enough sleep, he’s going to end up a fat bastard with accompanying ‘behavioural problems’. Parents know where the off switch is.

    Older people who indulge in such moral panics amuse me – I think it is just a symptom of their own obselescence. By the time my daughter was 8 years old, I had to buy her a laptop of her own, just to get her off my computer long enough for me to use it. (An English work colleague gave me the clue: “If you want to get your kid off your computer, buy her a better one than you’ve got.” It works like a charm.) By 9 she had her own Internet connection. I never attempted to censor or check on what she was looking at, I just gave her a 5 minute talk about how to keep herself safe in cyberspace and let her go at it. She was a sensible kid and I trusted her. She never had a problem. Now, I obviously know my way around the Internet, but she is blindingly fast on a keyboard, and equally lightning fast in finding whatever information she needs, and that is a very good thing. I still need to use a mouse with my desktop (to my eternal shame); she never uses one, it’s all done on the keyboard. She makes me look slow and outdated, and I couldn’t be more pleased. That is the way it should be, as human culture and technology progress. And she is physically and psychologically as fit as a fiddle – no parental control required, or welcomed. She has a brain, and she has been finding out all about health, nutrition and exercise ever since she had access to the masses of information available to her at her fingertips – far more than I ever had, and she is better off for it.

    People like Carr will always have a ready audience among outdated readers who are only too pleased to see that their hysteria about new technology with which they are less adept is well founded. In the schools here now, the kids have to hand in their phones when they enter the school, and they get them back when they leave. Bit Draconian, but whatever it takes. What the kids do outside of school – well, that’s what parents are for, if indeed the kids need any parental control at all. Mine didn’t. If parents are so dumb and irresponsible that they are not paying attention to whether Junior is getting enough sleep, physical activity and interaction with other kids, doing a 4 year research study to try to demonstrate it to them is not going to make a difference.

  3. I guess I am outdated – my children read books. They get minimal electronic screen time, usually under two hours per week. And that includes the television (they watch movies occasionally – no tv show for them).

  4. My daughter was a voracious reader of books as a child, and still is. (By age 11 she had already read the Bible (OT+NT) in paper form twice from beginning to end – and that was after she’d had her own laptop and Internet connection for years. At age 14 she got into trouble at the Catholic school she attended for correcting the Religious Studies teacher in class – knowing more than the teacher is sometimes best kept to oneself.) It’s not either/or, it’s books + screens. The screens are an additional resource and enabler. Smart kids who have grown up in the Internet era get this, and use it prudently. The occasional computer game doesn’t hurt, particularly the problem solving/mind challenging variety. Addiction to mindless screen games is obviously a problem, and that’s where parents should step in.

    Twinkie, a point to think about: during the SARS epidemic in HK in 2003, when no one understood very well what it was or how it was being transmitted, except that it had been killing the doctors and nurses who had been treating SARS patients, all of the schools were closed for 6 weeks. That could have impacted heavily on children’s education, but it didn’t because the teachers gave the kids their lessons and homework assignments via the schools’ Internet networks. For the few disadvantaged kids who did not have computer access at home, the other kids arranged to print out all of the material, and the mothers went to deliver the printed material by hand, through the post box – no human/human contact required.

    I think Riordan has a point in his question 1, though.

    Thinking about his point 1, a maybe relevant after-point to what I have said about my daughter is that she spends virtually zero time on social media. She has a diverse network of FB friends spread around the world, collected during her time at school plus two universities, and now working, and responds when they use it to ask a question, but very rarely posts anything on it; maybe once/year. It serves as a means of not losing prior real life friendships, and to exchange important information, but that’s about all.

  5. For those without a WSJ subscription, here’s a list of links from Carr’s blog.

    I remember first encountering Carr as an Wikipedia critic and then subscribing to his blog. I remember commenting on this blog post how on the Internet of Things is making us stupid because there is a limit on smartness, which contains the following passage:

    But our great-grandparents would be much better than we are at diagnosing and fixing an actual malfunctioning tractor. We can do analogies till the cows come home, but if our tractor breaks down in the middle of a field, we’re fucked. We’ve shifted intelligence from that part of our brain labeled “common sense about real tractors” to the one labeled “abstract reasoning about conceptual tractors.”

    This is probably one of the reasons why per-capita ownership of tractors has gone down sharply [my emphases] over the years while per-capita consumption of plastic containers of triple-washed baby lettuce leaves has gone way up. In a decades-long process of intelligence redistribution, the crop-growing knowledge that was once distributed widely among the population was first concentrated into the minds of a small group of specialists and then transferred into machines.

    To which I replies:

    The tractor example seems to get the causality a bit off. The loss of such practical knowledge about tractors is because we’ve moved away from farms and agricultural jobs, so there’s no need to maintain such knowledge. In other words, that loss is mostly a result and not a cause of that per-capita ownership of tractors decline.

    He replies:

    Turn the telescope around, Christopher. You’re looking through the wrong end.

    I feel like this didn’t answer my concern, but maybe I am just a bit thick; I could be the one missing the causality here.

  6. Christopher – Recently, my ageing Apple desktop, which I have been hammering the hell out of for more years than I care to think about, gave up the ghost – started to play up, and then died on me. It didn’t owe me anything. Tried to do a factory reset which would delete my personal data (incl. financial, etc.) so I could offer it to one of the charitable bodies which accept second hand hardware, but it couldn’t even do that. Then it just went dead.

    I didn’t want to know how to fix it. It was old. I didn’t even need to buy a new one, my daughter just gave me hers because she doesn’t use it any more; she needs portability due to her job needs.

    But I did want to know how the get the hard disk out of it, before sending the rest of it to the recyclers. You look at an iMac, and there’s no obvious way to get into the guts of it, right? It’s seamless. But a simple Google query threw up multiple very helpful step-by-step guides on how to do exactly what I wanted, some with videos showing how; others with detailed written instructions. (Answer: you need to get in through the screen, and there’s a very simple trick to getting the screen off. Even my super-smart and very practical, technically adept daughter went “Ohhh. So that’s how you do it.” Without being told that, I was screwed – I would never have figured it out by myself. I’ve never needed to get into the guts of an iMac before. I guess I could have lugged the thing to an Apple Shop, or asked them to send a tech guy to my place, but both of those options would have cost me time and money. Now I know how – I even know how to replace the hard disk and put the thing back together again if I ever want to. Or clean the dust out of it, or replace the cooling fan, or any number of other things.)

    I haven’t bothered to check, but I’m willing to bet that, if you have a broken down tractor and want to know how to fix it, you will be able to find that information pretty easily on the Internet with a simple search. You don’t need to have had years of experience of fixing broken down tractors – not any more. In my experience of going farming when I was much younger, to help out an old guy who had managed to lose most of his fingers in a mechanical grain auger, farmers never used to fix their own tractors – they called out for a tractor mechanic to come with the necessary replacement parts to do it.

    So, no, you are not thick. Loss of the practical knowledge has resulted from people not having to spend large parts of their lives trying to figure out how to fix tractors (and when you are trying to put a crop in before the first rains, time matters greatly and you don’t have weeks to mess around trying to figure it out). But it doesn’t matter, because if you ever do need to fix one, I’ll bet you can find a step-by-step guide on how to do it with very little effort. It’s possible that now people might be able to fix their own tractors quick enough instead of needing a tractor mechanic.

    Similar experience with my bicycle, when I have wanted to fix or modify it – a simple search online yields any number of helpful people explaining in step-by-step fashion how to do whatever I want to do. No need for a bicycle mechanic, I can do anything I want myself.

    Carr has really missed the point on this – the Internet is a very powerful medium for curating a huge mass of practical knowledge which is available free of charge to anyone who needs to access it. And a whole very large army of helpful people have been putting their practical knowledge into the freely available public repository.

    As to the per capita decline in tractor ownership, I’d guess that has been due to the decline in smaller family-run farms in favour of much larger agribusiness land holdings, leading to a much more unit productive use of tractors. It sure as hell hasn’t been due to a reduction in people who know how to fix them – that would have led to a commensurate decline in farm production, which obviously hasn’t happened.

    There’s no Law of Conservation of Intelligence, but there is a very powerful Medium of Collective Conservation and Curation of Practical Knowledge – it’s called the Internet. It is making us hugely more productive and effective, not less.

    Carr is either a whack job or a very clever con man.

  7. I have no idea if screen time actually makes us dumber, but I’m with Twinkie–and Steve Jobs apparently. I’m keeping my kids off screens as long as I can get away with it. I keep seeing depressing comments like this in post hurricane Puerto Rico coverage:

    One collateral effect of no internet or cellphones is that kids have to learn how to play again. The same can be said of the regions in Texas and Florida hit by recent hurricanes.

    These kids were born with the internet, so they don’t know and they’re learning back to basics,” Sued says.

    The pharmacist says she’s seen more children riding bicycles. More children playing outside — including her own 10-year-old twins, Ana Beatriz and Ana Gabriela. How have they been passing the time?

    “Play board games,” they giggle, “play in my dollhouse with the dolls. And play hide and seek.”

    Their mother is quite certain they will return to their cellphones and computers as soon as wireless communications return to Guayama

  8. Do smartphones have a disparate impact upon the IQ curve? i.e. those of greater impulse control and intelligence benefit tremendously from them, while those with average to below intelligence and impulse control suffer grievously compared to if they never had it.

    That has certainly been the case with “hyper-palatable” foods. Some people can enjoy them “in moderation.” But lots of people eat too much, leading to epidemics of diabetes, high blood pressure, back pain, knee problems, etc.

    Similarly, cigarette smoking has almost disappeared among successful people.

  9. The food analogy is not a bad one.

    Sooner or later, kids are going to have to use screens. They will have to use them in school, in tertiary education, and heavily in employment. It’s unavoidable. I work in engineering, and our project teams use a messaging app for quick group discussions on who is doing what, reporting deadlines, coordination, etc., and the office intranet for project files that we are all working on. We could not remain competitive without it.

    Good advice to kids is to avoid social media like FB as much as possible, without being anti-social about it, and to put as little information about themselves out there as possible. But they need to learn to pick their way through the minefield to get the information they need, and the younger they learn that the better, it seems to me. Intelligent children can pick up on this really fast, and safely.

  10. Another point – a messaging app for coordinating project groups beats the hell out of calling big meetings of busy people. Shared project files beat the hell out of briefing meetings to get all of the disciplines involved in large multi-discipline teams designing big infrastructure projects informed and up to speed on basic project details and progress.

    In the office I work in, big face to face meetings are now a rarity, which is a big saving on people’s time and avoidance of disruption of work schedules. They have become redundant. I know we have a staff archaeologist and someone who advises on heritage conservation, plus a team of ecologists who document flora and fauna, environmental scientists, traffic engineers, landscape architects who evaluate landscape impacts, and a whole host of other disciplines I need to interact with, but I rarely see them in person. I have never met the archaeologist – he does excellent work, and I’d kind of like to meet him in person because of that, but I have no practical reason to. Likewise the ecologists, who do brilliant work. I could be passing them in the office and never know it. I know them by name, but not by face. We have 3,500 staff in the local office, and they could be anybody.

    For team building, I guess that has some downside, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much. Expressions of appreciation of good work and deadlines met seem to work just as well.

    Interestingly, or not, some of the staff network on FB, ‘like’ photos of each other’s kids, etc., which also helps to personalize, team-build, etc. It’s kept far from being excessive. These are intelligent people. No one trolls or gets into pissing contests, or deviates into politics or whatever – the employer is watching, after all.

  11. That could have impacted heavily on children’s education, but it didn’t because the teachers gave the kids their lessons and homework assignments via the schools’ Internet networks.

    I homeschool. Everything my children do is submitted via the internet to the “home study school” for official grading and evaluation. But none of my children has a mobile phone or tablet or computer of his own. Not even the oldest who is a young teenager. He doesn’t care about it either. He does have his own knives, bow, crossbow, rifle, shotgun, handguns, fishing rods, and ATV.

    He doesn’t watch tv or play video games. He is usually busy with studying, reading, training in Judo and Brazilian Jujutsu, swimming, shooting, and hunting. This year I started to teach him Kali. We’ll see if that sticks (pun intended). One oddball hobby he has is building drones. He’ll probably go to the Air Force Academy and eventually become a drone designer.

  12. Drone designer or drone pilot? Either way, he would be using screens for sure. No engineering designers or draftsmen use paper drawings any more. It seems almost certain that somewhere on the Internet there must be simulators for people to practise being drone pilots.

  13. “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” – Alfred North Whitehead

    Now maybe I’m taking this quote way out of context, but it would seem an important addition to the general theme behind Razib’s point contra Carr. Smartphones are cutting out the operation of going to to the library, asking the librarian where this or that section of the library is, quickly consulting the wall map, etc…

  14. Drone designer or drone pilot?

    It’s currently about 99% tinkering and experimenting, 1% flying. I didn’t say my children don’t use any electronic screen. I said they probably use fewer than two hours a week in total, including tv, computer, tablet, etc.

    They just didn’t grow up with it and don’t hanker for it. Kinda the same with sugary food. Even my six year-old, when she wants some alone time, will disappear to a corner of a house (or the barn when we are in the countryside) with a stack of books and her coloring/sketch book for an hour or two.

    I don’t give unsolicited parenting advice, but for my own children, I just don’t see any need or utility to expose them any more than they already are to electronic screens. I like them better than many of their peers* who are glued to screens nowadays.

    *Their actual friends, especially among the other homeschooled children, are similar – very minimal screen time. I know many families with no tv at all. It’s all very natural when the kids are growing up with other “retro” families.


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