Amusing Ourselves to Life


Wired has posted this piece by Steven Johnson linking the "Flynn Effect"—the gradual increase of the population's aggregate IQ over time—to new media consumption. Like his much-discussed recent New York Times Magazine piece, it's based on his forthcoming book Everything Bad is Good For You.

I'm generally sympathetic to the thesis, and not a hardcore skeptic about IQ or "general intelligence," but I think it's worth bearing in mind that at least part of the way new media make us "smarter" is by shaping our concept of intelligence at the same time as they train us in the skills and behaviors that match that concept.

Neal Postman used to like to cite the example of Solomon (I think it was Solomon, anyway; I'm too lazy to check right now), who was considered wise in part because he had memorized some huge number of maxims. Now, having such a huge maxim-cache might today be considered impressive in a parlor-trick sort of way, but because pervasive external information-storage makes that sort of thing unnecessary, we'd hardly consider it a crucial test of intelligence. We're more apt to be impressed now with someone who can quickly navigate and apply all that stored information. New media inculcate the kind of on-the-spot problem solving intelligence Johnson talks about; they may not do much to develop the different kind of intelligence exercised by, say, reading and thinking about Socratic dialogues or doing a close reading of Proust or Joyce.

That's not to say we ought to buy into Postman-style luddite alarmism. If new media restructure our concept of intelligence, it's in part because they provide us real benefits and make the skills required to navigate them genuinely valuable. But it's worth recalling that the technology is, to some extent (because, of course, "problem solving" intelligence will already be an important part of any conception), advancing us toward a target that it placed there.

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  1. I doubt it takes any less intelligence to survive in the Amazon jungle, or on an 18th century farm for that matter. Different skills, different times.

  2. Sounds to me like they’re confusing “intelligence” with “knowledge.” Certainly modern people are more knowledgeable that ever before; one high-school physics textbook contains far more knowledge than was available to Newton or da Vinci, but that doesn’t mean the kid who’s memorized the book is more intelligent than Newton or da Vinci were.

  3. Jennifer-
    No, I don’t think that’s the case. The main intelligence test on which Johnson’s basing his central claim is a non-verbal one that tests logical problem-solving and pattern recognition exclusively; more knowledge wouldn’t show up at all. If anything, we’re probably less “knowledgable” now, in the sense that education is less concerned with having us memorize specific facts and dates that we’re able to look up easily.

  4. We’re more apt to be impressed now with someone who can quickly navigate and apply all that stored information.

    And in the same paragraph

    Neal Postman used to like to cite the example of Solomon (I think it was Solomon, anyway; I’m too lazy to check right now)

    Laziness, humor or low IQ ;?

  5. The piece would suggest that people are getting better at pattern recognition, in (large, at least that seems Johnson’s opinion) part because modern technology requires us to have better pattern recognition skills. The comment from Flynn is interesting — it would be interesting to know if things like improvements in arithmetical reasoning have been relatively steady both before and after the Flynn effect kicked in, or if there has been some interaction between the development of “on-the-spot” pattern recognition skills and skills that require greater “depth.”
    This comes to mind because you mention Postman — this would be data on the kind of “breadth versus depth” argument he used to give regarding TV vs. books, etc. But I’d be more curious about how the rise of pattern recognition skills might affect the types of analytic problems (scientific problems, really) the children of the future find interesting…


  6. Julian-
    Oh. Well, that’s what I get from commenting on your post rather than the actual article it refers to. And, while still not having read the article, I wonder if pattern recognition qualifies as innate intelligence or as a practiced skill.

    I remember a few years ago when I was still new to the Internet, I spent a few weeks mildly addicted to an online, grown-up version of the children’s memory game, with dozens of pairs of national flags facedown in a gridful of cards–each turn you flip two cards over at random, and remove them if they match. Over the course of a few weeks the number of turns I needed to empty the grid shrunk dramatically, until I got bored and stopped playing it.

    So my memory apparently improved, and there’s a connection between memory and intelligence, but I don’t think my actual intelligence increased because of the time I spent playing that game–probably the opposite, if anything.

    Pattern recognition is not the same thing as memorizing the location of images in a grid, but couldn’t that also be the type of skill which naturally grows with practice? Especially considering the fact that the human brain is wired to recognize patterns and images even where they do not previously exist–that’s why we see things like the Man in the Moon or shapes in the clouds. (In fact, I’ve often wondered if the Dale Gribble-type conspiracy theorists weren’t simply suffering from an enhanced tendency to do this; what is a conspiracy theorist if not someone prone to see patterns and connections even where none really exist?)

  7. Make that, “The human brain is wired to see patterns where they don’t ACTUALLY exist.” Not ‘previously.’

  8. It’s numbers like those in the articles that make me a bit skeptical about the worthiness of IQ tests. A 17 point rise from 1947 to 2001? If the trend continues wouldn’t the number of geniuses in 2050 be staggering? And going backwards wouldn’t most of the population in 1850 have been functional morons? I thought a major criticism of Charles Murray’s Bell Curve was that the IQ scores he cited put most sub-Saharan Africans as borderline retarded.

    Maybe it’s not intelligence or knowledge that’s increasing or being tested, only skills. The first time I played Tetris I was horrible. A week later I wasn’t any more intelligent or knowledgeable but my score was much higher. Just as GPA’s are increasing through grade inflation and there’s a peculiar rise in SAT scores, are we now seeing IQ inflation?

  9. At least a few studies report that the Flynn effect is acting predominatly on the bottom half of the IQ distribution, so I’m skeptical of something like media consumption as a strong explanation.

    so scape, we’re not producing more geniuses.

    for the technically inclined, check this paper

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