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.


  1. Evan 'JabberWokky' Edwards Said,

    May 30, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

    The other interesting thing is that as information gets easier to find, the worse it is. It used to be that the World Book Encyclopedia was not allowed in Junior High reports, and everybody understood that it was a tertiary reference, and thus not as valid as other references you dug out from the card catalog. On the internet, pretty much /everything/ is a tertiary reference (outside of some academic walled gardens that you need a login for). And although consulting the great Oracle of our Age (Wikipedia) is an easy act and usually correct enough, it generally only has online links with less information than the tertiary article itself.

    There’s a problem with people confusing information and knowledge (the juncture of information, experience and thoughtfulness), and everybody thinks knowledge is at our fingertips. Alas, only information is available, and it seems that the information is becoming more and more shallow and World Book-ish while more and more academic focus is set on information. Teaching knowledge — especially that thoughful aspect to it — is difficult to do in the best of times, and hard to test for on paper.

    And that’s where my comment meets yours. People are querying the machinery of the internet for information, because they do not have /knowledge/ to know how to find the answers themselves… the thoughfulness or experience to connect what they do know (Shall I check the manual? Is it similar to this other issue?) to find the answer to their problem.

    We are becoming very good at simple queries and poor at the synthesis of the resulting information into a personal knowledge pool, and without that ability, we simply repeat the query like rats pushing a bar until an answer appears.

  2. Wes Said,

    May 31, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    You’re absolutely right about that. There is a huge change in the review process coming, but I think we’re only half-way through the change (and a lot of times, half way through a change is much worse than being on either side of it). Importance is being placed on immediate publication over a careful review process.

    But if you think about it, the review process was done because you can’t review later and retract something, and because it was likely to be a single source of information (or else it wouldn’t pass review in the first place because it was nothing new).

    We’re now in an age of lots and lots of publications happening about a give subject and the trick is to determine if the publications are correct or not. Frequently all we have to go on now is the ability to rate the content based on how well written it is and how well it matches with the information presented in the other gazillion hits. This is probably not necessarily a bad thing if you actually did rank information by quantity but there are some things that get in the way of this. The first is laziness as once we find the information we tend to stop and assume the first hit is right rather than look at the first 10 hits or something. The second is that it’s too easy for malicious folk to actually flood the market with fake grass-roots reviews, etc, that overwhelm the information with a spin toward one direction or another (drug companies seem to excel at this by both posting positive reviews of their products but negative ones of competitor’s products).

    A study was recently done (I don’t have a reference, but it was discussed on NPR) that showed we’re horrible at looking for a review of a product, for example, that matches the information we want to find. IE, we’re willing to keep reading negative reviews of a product until we find an opinion that matches the one we want to see. IE, humans are miserable at trying to take in the massive amounts of information and regarding it all subjectively as a whole. Until we get out of that habit, we’re probably going to stay in the middle of this transition for quite some time.