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Digital alarmists are wrong

Google is not making us stupid, PowerPoint is not destroying literature, and the Internet is not really changing our brains.

July 25, 2010|By Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Although the case that technology increases our intelligence is at least as plausible as the gloomy idea that it is changing our brains for the worse, there are real downsides to the instant availability of torrents of information. The danger comes not from the information itself, or from how it could rewire our brains, but from the way we think about our own knowledge and abilities. As the psychologists Leon Rozenblit and Frank Keil discovered, people tend to suffer from an illusion of knowledge: a tendency to mistake surface-level familiarity with deep understanding. As more information becomes readily available, that sense of familiarity grows and grows, and with it the illusion of knowledge. On-demand access to reams of data can also trick us into mistaking knowledge we could obtain quickly for knowledge we already have and can act upon. And if the illusion leads us to neglect the acquisition of true knowledge, we as individuals could become dumber as a result.

Additionally, the more different ways technology gives us to multitask, the more chances we have to succumb to an illusion of attention — the idea that we are paying attention to and processing more information than we really are. Each time we text while we are driving and do not get into an accident, we become more convinced that we can do two (or three or four …) things at once, when in reality almost no one can multitask successfully and we are all at greater risk when we do so. Our capacity to learn, understand and multitask hasn't changed with the onslaught of technology, but our confidence in our own knowledge and abilities have.

So Google is not making us stupid, PowerPoint is not destroying literature, and the Internet is not really changing our brains. But they may well be making us think we're smarter than we really are, and that is a dangerous thing.

Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College in New York. Daniel Simons is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. They are the authors of the new book, "The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us." They blog at theinvisiblegorilla.com.

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