Has Faster Forms of Communication Lowered Our IQ?

Remember the days when you were stumped doing your research and in order to get help you had to write some other famous person a long and detailed letter about the problem and then have it delivered by a messenger on horseback. No? Ok, well me neither. But I do remember a time where getting help on a problem was a bit more difficult than it is now.

In the Good Old Days (TM)

Back in the day, when scientists were scientists and intellects were intellects, we solved our own problems, darn it. If we were stuck on a science problem and we needed to write Isaac Newton to get help on a new gravitational theory, we made darn sure we were truly stuck. The reason was simple: it would take a month (at least) to complete the round trip. And that’s assuming he wrote back right away. We would never give up immediately. We’d always explore every last option before firing off that letter. Probably because writing with a quill can’t be easy (I wouldn’t know; I haven’t actually tried. I get mad enough when the ink in my mechanical pencil runs out.)

But today…

But you don’t live in that era, do you? (unless you succeeded in some back-to-the-future mojo) No, today, when you’re stuck on a difficult problem you probably just fire off an email to someone saying “help me”. Obi-wan, you’re really my only hope in figuring out how that silly web page actually picked the card I was thinking about.

We’ve Grown Impatient

I participate in (free) software support mailing lists where savy internet users will write in with a question on Friday afternoon and respond to themselves on Saturday saying “does anyone have an answer for my problem? No one has written me back yet.” What’s worse is that 90% of the time, the question was probably could have been solved by RTFM (“reading the fine manual”; or at least that’s what the polite form of the acronym is).

The Result

The result of modern, quick communication forums is that we don’t solve problems for ourselves any longer. We immediately ask for help or simply give up on sometimes the most trivial of problems. We’ve lost the ability to analyze the situation for ourselves and ensure every possible path has been checked to the best of our own ability. What’s worse, is we expect people on the other end of the communication chain to take time out of their day to solve the problem for us.

Fight back, I say. When you run into a snag: learn something about what you’re working on. Take the time to get truly, truly stumped. Even if you don’t succeed in solving your problem you’ll have learned something in the end. I promise.

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