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Smartphones – Am I Smarter? Or Dummer?

October 22, 2013

Someone named Leah Eichler noted in the Globe and Mail’s Business Section a couple of weekends ago that the ‘multicommunicating’ craze – the talking to someone whilst glancing at a screen, or texting, or scanning the internet – all-at-the-same-time thing that we all now do – that this new ‘multicommunicating’ has taken over our smartphone lives, and Eichler argues, that by allowing this to happen, we have institutionalized rudeness in our culture.

And she’s right. It is rude the way we interrupt each other to check an incoming text. There’s nothing more infuriating than being in the middle of some really intense conversation, only to have the other person immediately break away to take an incoming call about somethings useless, like a friend spotting fresh bagets at the corner bakery.  

We have, in fact, accepted that we would rather be rude to each other – or, that we would rather “redefine” social norms – as the hipsters put it (the rudest multicommunicators of all!) – than actually engage with each other as a full and present experience.

That this is having a fundamental impact on our culture no one doubts. There are a thousand books on the subject. Science can now measure that we talk more briefly to each other, we use simpler sentences than any time in the last 100 years, and that we know less and less words. As a society we have gone from a daily common word vocabulary of about 2,000 words in the 1970’s, down to about 150 common words used today. In the under-25 crowd the daily vocabulary is now measured at less than 100 different words.

But that’s the total words we know. We always talk down our vocabulary in actual conversation, so, in actual sentence use, we now use less than 40 words in about 98% of all our conversations. Think about the conversations you have had today. You most likely used the same 20-30 words, over and over again.

The University of Chicago, who has been measuring North American daily vocabulary since before the Great Depression, measured the average university graduate in the 1920’s has having about 25,000 words in their total vocabulary. Of course, that was before radio and television. Today it is 250.

Movies today, only have a quarter of the dialogue of movies in the 1960’s. The Matrix only had about 10% of the dialogue movies used to have.

So, even though I can go on my smartphone and pick up any bit of information from almost anywhere in the known universe, even though I essentially carry the world’s largest library in my pocket, my cellphone is actually making me dumber, and ruder.

As the philosopher once said, even though you know things, it doesn’t mean you have wisdom.

But all is not lost, for as Leah Eichler, business writer for the Globe and Mail points out, while multicommunicating may be institutionalizing rudeness in our culture, studies show that it is also making us more productive as workers.

And well, hey, that’s what really counts. For in a pure comsumer capitalist society, efficiency trumps rudeness.

Maximized productivity is what really counts, even if it makes us all less civil – and less intelligent – in the process.


(P.S. That I no longer have the vocabulary to describe my dispair, nor have anyone with the time to listen, leaves a cold wind to blow over the bones of Kafka.)

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