Idiot-proof: Is technology making us ... less smart?

Feb 01, 2010

A click away: Are we too reliant on technology? (PHOTO: LARS SCHNEIDER/GETTY IMAGES)
I diocracy is one of my wife's favorite comedies. An average guy is cryogenically frozen and defrosted in a future America where an over-reliance on technology and blind trust in pop culture have made everyone so dumb that he has become the smartest person in the world.

I thought seeing an increase in the number of stupid people in the world was a natural function of aging, until I saw a Dallas Morning News article ("Your brain on GPS," Dec. 6, 2009) warning that extensive use of a GPS could decrease a person's ability to make "mental maps" and cause parts of the brain to atrophy.

It was then I realized that humanity probably really is getting dumber and the reason may be the very technology that promised to improve our lives.

Since it is only briefly taught in school, it won't be long before people can neither read nor write in cursive. Who needs handwriting when there are word processors? Why bother learning how to spell when there is "spell check"? Why should anyone attempt basic math while there are calculators in the world? Cashiers at fast-food restaurants couldn't function if there weren't small pictures of the food items on the register keys and the change weren't calculated automatically. Why strain your brain trying to figure out how to find a new location when GPS and Mapquest exist? Why develop social skills in the world of Twitter and Facebook? Why should you memorize a huge 10-digit phone number when you have speed dial?

Veterinary medicine is not immune to this trend. No need to interpret the chemistry results when the blood machine will do it for you. Why learn to read X-rays when you can e-mail them to a specialist? Don't bother trying to understand the ECG when you can phone it to a cardiologist for diagnosis. No reason to develop a good abdominal palpation technique when the sonogram machine is there. Remember the stethoscope? In ancient times, before the ECG, proto-vets used it to evaluate the heart.

Don't get me wrong. I do like my doctor toys. But brain tissue that is exercised tends to enlarge, while disuse produces measurable shrinkage. The less we have to do for ourselves, the more incompetent we become as a species. If the electricity went out tomorrow, could you still practice medicine? One or two well-placed electromagnetic pulses and the entire country becomes the town of Bedrock! Then it's Idiocracy II: Revenge of the Mayans!

Dr. McLaughlin is a small-animal practitioner in Plano, Texas.