I’m probably not the first and certainly not the only person to observe that as smartphones get smarter, the people using them seem to be getting dumber. We have all witnessed drivers weaving along as they fumble with a text or pedestrians barging into traffic with their noses glued to their screens. Annoying, and all too often tragic; casualties among drivers and walkers are up dramatically nearly everywhere. Also not surprising. The draw of a palm-sized device through which one can access everything and everyone all the time is difficult to ignore, even when its use threatens our physical well-being. But the bigger threat posed by smartphones, and the insidious marketing strategies they enable, may be to our minds rather than our bodies.
Smartphones have placed more information at our disposal than we can possibly use, and many human brains find this data avalanche perplexing, if not overwhelming. Some form of filtration might be useful, and the clever programmers at Facebook, Amazon and a hundred more Big Media companies stand ready to help. Their algorithms scour your browsing history and analyze your reading habits, your media consumption, even your grocery list, to compile a dossier of your personal preferences. Through ads, suggested websites and “those who looked at this also might enjoy seeing that” prompts, they turn you into a demographic of one, a “one” that can be specifically targeted by marketers every time you log on. In the process, you are subtly encouraged to ignore any influences that might broaden your taste in books, clothing, cars, organic produce – or news outlets. Of course there are a thousand other sources of information out there, but the algorithms don’t want you to bother with those. Your time is too valuable.
The unintended (perhaps) outcome of this assistance is a populace that is becoming accustomed to letting computer programs perform its due diligence. An app may be a great way to shop for underwear, but do we really want Facebook to choose which political or economic commentary we want to absorb? Because while some marketers only want to “help” you decide which brand of running shoes to buy, others want to “help” you decide which news stories best fit your political leanings and which ones are fake. A few (rhymes with Prussians) may even be using your predilection for indifference to influence your vote.
The ability to sort through reams of data and separate the good stuff from the background noise is like any skillset; if you don’t use it, you will lose it, and the evidence of our disuse is pretty stark. Something like 95% of Google searchers never make it past the first page of results. Is Google really that good, or are we just getting too lazy to look at page two? Most readers of newspapers – remember newspapers? – glance at a story’s headline and skim the first couple of paragraphs. There’s a reason it’s continued on page 9, but in the Age of the Smartphone brevity is king. And speaking of brevity, there’s Twitter. If erudition is a sign of intelligence, what to make of a medium wherein proper spelling and capitalization are MIA, punctuation marks have facial features and the deepest exchanges are more shallow (and shorter) than a 6th grader’s book report?
Google, Twitter, Facebook, now Siri and Alexa – they are all waiting for us on our smartphones, waiting to answer questions we didn’t really ask, waiting to tell us what they want us to know.
Our personal devices may not literally be sapping our intelligence, but they are certainly making us less intellectually rigorous. In the long run, that may amount to the same thing.