Re: As We Age, Smartphones Don’t Make Us Stupid — They’re Our Saviors

Lauren Weinstein is a frequent contributor to the RISKS List which is for discussing computer-related risks. RISKS is accessible as the USENET newsgroup comp.risks or through Mr. Weinstein’s article “As We Age, Smartphones Don’t Make Us Stupid — They’re Our Saviors” appeared in RISKS 28.56 and on his Website at

He starts: “Throughout human history, pretty much every development or invention that increased our information storage and management capabilities has had its loud and voracious naysayers.” and gives historical examples.

Another paragraph is, ‘The crux of most arguments against having quick access to information seem to largely parallel the attempts not that many years ago (and in some venues, still continuing) to routinely ban calculators from physics and other similar subject tests, on the grounds that not doing the math by hand was somehow — perhaps in a moral judgment “You’ll go to hell!” kind of sense — horribly cheating.’

I can see his point, but I also see the other side. The benefits of a new method of dealing with things can be loudly touted while the disadvantages are ignored.

I had an example of this in university. For one of my courses, the instructor stated, near the beginning of the course, that he was considering allowing us to use laptops on the midterm and the final exams. No Net connection would be allowed, but each student could put whatever data he wanted on his systems. We already would be allowed to bring whatever hard copy we wanted.

The idea of this was very popular with the students in the back row in class: the ones who sat there because then they could plug in their systems.

The midterm came and went. I noticed a couple weeks after that we had not had the option of using computers. Since it was of no interest to me, I shrugged. The topic came up again near the end of the course. There was a lot of racket from the students who wanted to use computers. I finally managed to get a word in edgewise that I was concerned that an exam could favour computer use and that I did not think that I should have to spend several hundred dollars (more) to write a final. The instructor said that that would be considered. Since he was straightshooter, I left it at that.

On Thursday of the first week of exams, it was time to write the final for this course. I brought my course notes and assignments as well as three textbooks that I had and thought might be of use. The exam looked reasonable, and I got to it. I only had to refer to my materials a few times. I left figuring that I had done quite well.

Wait, wait, wait.

A week later, I still had not seen my grade up. I was on campus and ran across the instructor and asked how it was going. He must have just finished the marking. He told me (words are a close paraphrase), “I’ve got two things to tell you. In general, the students who did not use computers did better than those who did, and two, you got the only A+.”

Naturally, I was pleased with the A+, but why the difference between the two groups? I puzzled over it for a few months and finally came up with what I think is the reason.

I minored in Math, and on a course on linear programming, I was studying for the midterm with another student. We were trying a question, and it just was not working out. We decided to check the text. The other student was looking at it for a few minutes and did not figure it out, so I asked to have a look. There was a section that I thought was wrong or ambiguous. I suggested reading it a bit differently than we had. That turned out to be it.

If we had not done this, but had instead referred to the text during the exam, we would have lost time. It is no surprise to me now why students in the other course who used computers did not do so well. It is one thing to look something up like the capital of California, but it is quite another when one has to understand the material that one finds more than trivially.

I think that people who rely overly on computers can all too easily shortchange themselves.

2 thoughts on “Re: As We Age, Smartphones Don’t Make Us Stupid — They’re Our Saviors

  1. Robert Frasier

    As a tenured university professor teaching engineering, I have been dealing with the computer/web phone issue for some time. With no outstanding success. I do not know anyone who has a “magic bullet” for the exact situation you described. Your example of how you studied for the exam–and the insight that was the breakthrough–speaks to a fundamental issue in our students here in the U.S.
    Johnny can’t read. Forget all the other things someone needs to know to survive in our culture. If you cannot read critically, and comprehend things like lists of instructions, descriptions of problems, or a warning on a new prescription, your in big trouble. And our current “all children left behind” system of primary education is NOT teaching this. My students cannot read somewhat complicated instructions to save their life. So even with Google, Cramster, etc., up on their laptops, they don’t understand the question and do not answer it correctly.
    As I age, I find that my phone is very helpful–I have more schedules to meet, more people to coordinate with, and 120 students who only pay attention if a notification comes as a text. I hate the phone, but it’s something I have to use, and in some situations helps. But crucially, I learned to read pre-computer. I went through engineering school PC. I can read well. My students cannot. The phones may contribute to this since they are used to everything being presented as pretty pictures on a web page. I don’t know. I do know that critical reading ability is a potent indicator of how well the student will do in class. Which has little to do with whether they have the book as a pdf or paper.

    1. Gene Wirchenko Post author

      Absolutely. It is not just in the U.S.A.; I am in Canada.

      I am 54 and graduated with a Bachelor of Computing Science degree in 2010. Oh, did I ever feel different. It often felt as if I was taking different courses from my classmates. I would ask questions directed to application of the material; they rarely did. A few times, I heard complaints about an assignment which I recognised as having been addressed by the instructor in response to a question of mine. Who is paying attention?

      As to logic, many of my classmates regularly used argument by assertion, and the idea of supporting one’s argument with facts seemed alien to them.

      I do not have a solution either.

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