A few thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher, as he snacked on dates on a bench in downtown Athens, may have wondered if the written language folks were starting to use was allowing them to avoid thinking for themselves.
Today, terabytes of easily accessed data, always-on Internet connectivity, and lightning-fast search engines are profoundly changing the way people gather information. But the age-old question remains: Is technology making us smarter? Or are we lazily reliant on computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?
"Our environment, because of technology, is changing, and therefore the abilities we need in order to navigate these highly information-laden environments and succeed are changing," said Susana Urbina, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida who has studied the roots of intelligence.
If there is a good answer to the question, it probably starts with a contradiction: What makes us intelligent--the ability to reason and learn--is staying the same and will never fundamentally change because of technology. On the other hand, technology, from pocket calculators to the Internet, is radically changing the notion of the intelligence necessary to function in the modern world.
Take Diego Valderrama, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. If he were an economist 40 years ago, he may have used a paper, pencil and slide rule to figure out and chart by hand how the local economy might change with a 1 percent boost in taxes. But because he's a thoroughly modern guy, he uses knowledge of the C++ programming language to create mathematical algorithms to compute answers and produce elaborate projections on the impact of macroeconomic changes to work forces or consumer consumption.
Does that mean he's not as bright as an economist from the 1950s? Is he smarter? The answer is probably "no" on both counts. He traded one skill for another. Computer skills make him far more efficient and allow him to present more accurate--more intelligent--information. And without them, he'd have a tough time doing his job. But drop him into the Federal Reserve 40 years ago, and a lack of skill with the slide rule could put an equal crimp on his career.
Intelligence, as it impacts the economist Valderrama, is our capacity to adapt and thrive in our own environment. In a Darwinian sense, it's as true now as it was millions of years ago, when man's aptitude for hearing the way branches broke or smelling a spore affected his power to avoid predators, eat and survive.
But what makes someone smart can vary in different cultures and situations. A successful Wall Street banker who has dropped into the Australian Outback likely couldn't pull off a great Crocodile Dundee impression. A mathematical genius like Isaac Newton could be--in fact, he was--socially inept and a borderline hermit. A master painter? Probably not so good at balancing a checkbook.
What's undeniable is the Internet's democratization of information. It's providing instant access to information and, in a sense, improving the practical application of intelligence for everyone.
Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford didn't have the Internet, but he did have a bunch of smart guys. The auto industry pioneer, as a parlor trick, liked to claim he could answer any question in 30 minutes. In fact, he had organized a research staff he could call at any time to get him the answer.
Today, you don't have to be an auto baron to feign that kind of knowledge. You just have to be able to type G-O-O-G-L-E. People can in a matter of minutes find sources of information like court documents, scientific papers or corporate securities filings.
"The notion that the world's knowledge is literally at your fingertips is very compelling and is very beguiling," said Vint Cerf, who co-created the underlying architecture of the Internet and who is widely considered one of its "fathers." What's exciting "is the Internet's ability to absorb such a large amount of information and for it to be accessible to other people, even if they don't know it exists or don't know who you are."
Indeed, Doug Engelbart, one of the pioneers of personal computing technology in the 1960s, envisioned in the early '60s that the PC would augment human intelligence. He believes that society's ability to gain insight from information has evolved with the help of computers.
"The key thing about all the world's big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively," Engelbart said. "If we don't get collectively smarter, we're doomed."
The virtual memory
According to at least one definition, intelligence is the "ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn." Yet intelligence is not just about book learning or test scores; it also reflects a deeper understanding of the world. On average, people with high IQs are thought to live longer, earn more money, process information faster and have larger working memories.
Yet could all this information provided by the Internet and gadgets dampen our motivation to remember anything?
Working with the Treo handheld computing device he helped create, Jeff Hawkins can easily recount exactly what he did three years ago on Sept. 8, factor 9,982 and Pi, or describe a weather system over the Pacific Ocean. But without his "smart" phone, he can't recall his daughter's telephone number offhand.
It's a familiar circumstance for people living in the hyper-connected Internet age, when it has become easier to program a cell phone or computer--instead of your brain--to recall facts or other essential information. In some sense, our digital devices do the thinking for us now, helping us with everything from calendar scheduling and local directions to in-depth research and "Jeopardy"-like trivia.
"It's true we don't remember anything anymore, but we don't need to," said Hawkins, the co-founder of Palm Computing and author of a book called "On Intelligence."
"We might one day sit around and reminisce about having to remember phone numbers, but it's not a bad thing. It frees us up to think about other things. The brain has a limited capacity, if you give it high-level tools, it will work on high-level problems," he said.
Only 600 years ago, people relied on memory as a primary means of communication and tradition. Before the printed word, memory was essential to lawyers, doctors, priests and poets, and those with particular talents for memory were revered. Seneca, a famous teacher of rhetoric around A.D. 37, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard years before. "Memory," said Greek playwright Aeschylus, "is the mother of all wisdom."
People feared the invention of the printing press because it would cause people to rely on books for their memory. Today, memory is more irrelevant than ever, argue some academics.
"What's important is your ability to use what you know well. There are people who are walking encyclopedias, but they make a mess of their lives. Getting a 100 percent on a written driving test doesn't mean you can drive," said Robert Sternberg, dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and a professor of psychology.
Tomorrow: A look at what makes us smart in the Internet age. And what happens when the lights go out?