Metaphors say a lot about our culture. When people start describing smart people, for instance, their language tends to rely on terms used on labels at Home Depot: people can be quick or sharp or bright, or, conversely, be cursed with being dense or slow.
The media love this simplification of intelligence, and several studies have recently hit the airwaves purporting to gauge the influence of new technologies on our state of collective smartness. Depending on who you listen to, our recent plunge into high-tech dependence has left us a) dumber, b) smarter or c) acting like we're high.
Earlier this month a study was released by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities pointing to television as a prime culprit in underachieving at school. Of 350 California grade three students, those who had a TV in their bedroom performed worse on standardized math and English tests than those who had to suffer the indignity of watching TV with their family.
But intelligence can be measured in as many ways as there are people. As the introduction of standardized testing in Ontario showed us, deciding what to test and how to test it can be contentious. IQ tests have been criticized for years for testing a narrowly defined version of intelligence that is highly dependent on cultural and social context.
Earlier this year, a minor furor was stirred up over a study done by King's College London University claiming that excessive use of technologies like e-mail and text messaging causes an IQ drop of more than twice that caused by smoking pot.
Never mind that these IQ tests were given to people while they were actually checking their e-mail or sending text messages, which only suggests the groundbreaking conclusion that writing tests when distracted isn't good for test scores. Study researcher Dr. Glenn Wilson says an obsession with unchecked e-mail at work reduces "mental sharpness," but the exact benefit of "sharpness" in the brain isn't exactly clear.
A recent book by Heather Menzies titled No Time: Stress And The Crisis Of Modern Life argues that our addiction to instant communication has created a generation of people lacking not only in IQ but also in social intelligence. While there's always a fine line between stereotyping and acknowledging gender differences, Menzies successfully focuses on the current shortage of the many kinds of intelligence traditionally offered by women: care-giving, rearing families and conflict resolution - in short, the activities necessary to keep our communities functioning.
So after modern technology has been thoroughly trounced for causing the decline of our collective intelligence, along comes writer Steven Johnson and his newest book, Everything Bad Is Good For You. It argues that today's technology-driven popular culture is boosting IQ scores across the board. Whether it's reruns of The Sopranos or zooming around town in Grand Theft Auto, today's pop-culture staples are giving viewers a "cognitive workout" by demanding they sort through mazes of interconnected stories and fragments of narrative - something we do all the time when answering several e-mails at once or multi-tasking on the subway.
Reporters love to simplify such arguments into sound bites, either exalting or decrying our reliance on technology and its effect on what goes on in our noggins. As usual, the reality is more complex, and people exhibit a wide variety of intelligences, from the ability to think quickly and laterally to the ability to ponder deeply and thoroughly. From kinesthetic to musical to mathematical intelligence, our society is enriched by a diversity of skills - skills that are in a continuous give-and-take relationship with any given technology.
Next time you hear a sound bite about our dumbed-down culture or the problem with kids playing video games, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether all these people are really talking about the same thing.