Is technology dumbing us down or smarting us up?

Is this your brain on technology?
Is this your brain on technology?Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This story on NewScientist's Culture Lab blog suggests that, because we've invented technologies that can do some of our thinking for us, humans are losing the need for biological intelligence. Think about it (if you still can, har har): computers can think much faster and keep track of much more data than one person's brain can, but cognition-saving devices go back much further than that. Writing and number systems allowed us to store and calculate information through physical media instead of memorization, and devices like the abacus (and then the slide rule and the electronic calculator) allowed us to do arithmetic with our fingers. Be honest: when have you used those times-tables you had to memorize? With all this technology, why would we still need the ability to memorize and calculate inside our brains?

Interesting point, right? If everything we ever used our brains for could be done better by a computer, I'd agree. But another way to look at the situation is to say that because technology can do the grunt work for us, our brains are free for higher-level processes of creativity and analysis. If I want to make up a story, I don't have to keep repeating the beginning over and over in my head so I don't forget it--I can write it down and then spend my mental energy thinking up the rest of the story instead. Landing humans on the moon or a rover on Mars takes calculation and computer power, but it couldn't have happened without human imagination to conceive of, and human ingenuity to solve, the obstacles that those feats presented.

What do you think? Will "outsourcing" our thinking to technology make us dumber, or will it free our brains up for other, more advanced kinds of thought?

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