A new study analyzing groupthink has raised the interesting possibility that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are destroying people’s capacity to think analytically. This is distinct from similar studies that claim that Google, and the internet at large, have destroyed people’s ability to recall information.
In case you were wondering, the study worked like this: Dr. Iyad Rahwan asked a group of twenty people a trick question over and over again. The first few times he asked the question to the group, the people who got it wrong kept getting it wrong—sticking with their original answers and refusing to give the question further thought. But when they were able to compare answers with other participants before they gave their own final answers, a much greater percentage of the group overall got the right answer. Members with initially wrong answers would tune in to the fact that another member had thought through the question more carefully, and change their own answers accordingly. They weren’t actually putting in more work on their own answers; they were just copying. How did Rahwan know? Because when these participants moved on to the next trick question without being able to compare answers, they went back to giving the wrong answer over and over again.
Rahwan extrapolated his findings onto the larger world of social media and came to the conclusion that Facebook and Twitter are probably hindering the development of analytical thinking skills. I understand why he would say that, but I would refine his assessment slightly. Facebook and Twitter are not forcing people to develop critical and analytical thinking skills. That doesn’t necessarily mean that social media is actually hindering us from learning those skills—social media just allows our foolish complacency to destroy us.
Anyone who has read Neil Postman’s book Technopoly is aware that technology comes with a price. It has benefits of course, but these benefits are not without consequences. Forget the mnemonic damage that Google has wreaked, Postman points out that technological inventions as simple as writing have had a powerful, but “mixed-bag,” effect on society.
Before the advent of printing, people had to actually remember things. Our body of information may have suffered for this, but no doubt each individual member of society was benefitted by the circumstantial necessity of recalling all the important information he might need. As Caliban the savage said of Prospero the intellectual in The Tempest: “Remember first to possess his books; for without them he’s but a sot, as I am . . .”
Mobile devices and the internet have made sots out of us all. They are a sort of extension of our memories that we take along with us. As they have grown larger and more reliable, we have grown smaller and dimmer. And apparently, we have compounded our individual stupidity by borrowing also from the stupidity of others. Such is life in a technopoly.