When Smart Is Not So Smart

Are we becoming too reliant on technology and what happens if it is suddenly taken away from us, asks Tom Chatfield.

Google’s “chief technology advocate”, Michael Jones, recently made an astonishingly bold statement.

“Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps,” he told the Atlantic magazine. “They don’t give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they’re smarter, because they can rely on these tools”.

One of the original brains behind Google Maps – a tool whose latest innovations include some of the first ever detailed maps of North Korea – Jones is better placed to justify such a claim than most. Through technological tools, he argued, a “kind of extra-smartness is coming to people”. And it’s being delivered so seamlessly that most people only notice it when things go wrong – at which point “they feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.”

“Smart” is one of the iconic words of our times. When the world’s first “smart phone” appeared in 1997, courtesy of Swedish firm Ericsson, the label was carefully chosen to signify an evolutionary leap forward: the transition from a passive tool, used to make and receive calls, to an interactive device offering  – in the words of its original packaging – not only an “address book/calendar/notepad” but also the then-miraculous promise of “voice/email/SMS/internet” in one’s pocket.

Today, as Jones’s formulation suggests, “smartness” suggests a particular species of sophistication brought by machines into daily living: the sophistication of tools which so effortlessly augment our capacities for thought and action that we feel like it’s us getting smarter. The “20 IQ points” he says are offered by Google Search and Maps are only the beginning. From smart cars to smart cities, via smart glasses and smart fridges, we live in an age where every facet of the manufactured world will soon come with its own handy hunk of machine intelligence. Read more ……