15 September 2010

Are We Encouraging Stupidity In Our Users?

Lets face it, if you read this blog its very likely that at least some part of your job involves software development and/or implementation projects. While the work project professionals do extends above and beyond applications, we spend a large amount of our time working on or around a development effort of some kind. We generally like to think that our projects add value (or at least they should add value) to our organizations and make the lives of our users better. Most often we feel strongly, maybe even passionately, about the work we do being for the good of our stakeholders.

It is these same feelings which make news articles like this one seem so crazy. People complain of sensationalism in media and I think this is an example of just such behavior. When your title is 'How good software makes us stupid', I can't help but wonder if the author is pushing for a particular outcome or if they're just trying to drum up a few extra hits to the website.

The more I think about the article, the more bunk I find it to be. The reason is simple... good software enables its users to spend more time doing things that are more important, not in the endless regurgitation of facts. Lets use the London cabbies cited in the article as a good example.

Yes, its true that GPS would keep the cabbies from needing to know every nook and cranny of London's streets. Isn't that a good thing? You don't need to spend years doing rote memorization of streets; you can hop in the cab, turn on the GPS and immediately begin to add value. This then means that members of the labor pool who are looking at a cab driver job as a step up in the career can more quickly get into the market than they could previously.

This also means that cabbies who are looking to move up another step in their career have the ability to do so without spending as much time doing memorization for some other job. If the information you need is always no more than a google search away, you free yourself up for a lot more time innovating yourself on to something bigger and better.

When pointing out this article to my wife, who is studying for her PhD in clinical psychology, she had an interesting point I feel I must make. There is a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect, which shows that all countries have been increasing their IQ by three points per decade over the last 100 years. That's all countries mind you, not just industrialized ones. It has been during this same time period that technology has dramatically changed our lives (hopefully for the better).

Lets put this in perspective. Average IQ has increased 30 points in the last 100 years. The standard deviation for IQ is 15 points, so in the last 100 years, average IQ has moved two standard deviations up the scale. Quite impressive, but I'm not done yet. Mental retardation can't be defined by IQ alone, but having an IQ that is two standard deviations below the normal (meaning 70) is generally considered within the correct range for that diagnosis. Gifted programs usually start at an IQ of 120. So, this said, the average IQ of today would have qualified as genius level 100 years ago. Average IQ of 100 years ago would be listed as a potential diagnosis for mental retardation today.

Now, there are LOTS of theories on why this is (go read the article for them) and by no means am I advocating that technology is driving an increase in 30 IQ points in the last 100 years. What I am saying is that more technology is assuredly NOT correlated with a drop in IQ and is not causing our IQ to drop.

That said, if you've seen the article I quoted at the beginning being passed around the office, don't fall prey to bad reporting. Always look deeper, without just reading it at face value. As project team members who likely advocate technology as at least a portion of most solutions, this is what we're trained to do anyway, so this is just another chance for us to polish our skills. Technology is a good thing and don't let anyone tell you differently.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Nick Carr strikes again.

    I love the "could" in the "simple experiment could suggest..." that sw short-circuits our brain. Which equally means it could not suggest that.

    The London cabbie example is not about memorization, it is about ownership of information as a means of power or protection. I am sure all the cabbies who did gain The Knowledge the old way are really annoyed by, or even scared of, the use of GPS. The Knowledge is has been a real barrier to new people becoming cabbies and competing against existing cabbies, something that protected the livelihood of London cabbies. Now they can be put out of business by increased competition from anyone who knows how to drive.

    This is the change: existing cabbies would say it is a "bad" change, but anyone looking for work would say it is a "good" change, and numbers will win out. So Carr has found a case where technology has an impact, he has just missed what that impact really is.

    But back to the stupidity issue: what are real scientists saying about Carr's theories?