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Are We Loosing the Ability to Solve Problems by our Increased Use of Computers?

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    It is hard to deny the increase use of computers in today’s society for the past 30 years. Since the birth of personal computers in the 70’s there has been a huge increase in sales worldwide. According to the Gartner group, the world’s leading information technology research and Advisor Company, 1.1 million PC shipments that were sold in 1980 contrast 336.6 million units are projected to reach in 2010;  a 12.6 percent increase over 2009.  It is no surprise then that in view of this ever increasing use of computers, some people have questioned if people are losing their ability to think for themselves. I believe this is not the case. We are not losing our ability to reason or solve problems, but instead we are now, through the use of computers, able to work at a higher level to solve more complex problems.

    In doing research for this topic, I discovered several articles opposing the idea of excessive use of computers, for example:

       According to the National Endowment for the Arts, literary reading declined 10 percentage points from 1982 to 2002 and the rate of decline is accelerating. Many, including Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles, believe that a greater focus on visual media exacts a toll. ‘A drop-off in reading has possibly contributed to a decline in critical thinking,’ she says. ‘There is a greater emphasis on real-time media and multitasking rather than focusing on a single thing. (Quote in Greengard 18)

    One important aspect of the computers is the Internet, and Websites such as Google and Wikipedia provide many people with information. Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, says, our critical thinking can be improved significantly by using the correct technology. On the other hand, he also says that we are faced with so much information and surrounded by so many electronic devices that it is becoming harder and harder to focus on one thing for more than just a moment. ‘We are overwhelmed by a constant barrage of devices and tasks.’ Worse: ‘We increasingly suffer from the Google syndrome. People accept what they read and believe what they see online is fact when it is not.’(Quote in Greengard 19)

    With so much information in the Internet, it is easy to see why Michael Bugeja is concerned about people misinterpreting opinions for facts. However, there is a growing set of communities that rely on credibility ratings. For example, in Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, anyone can register to add or edit an article. If an entry with obscene content or content that only reflects an opinion is entered, it is quickly taken offline by the websites administrators. This provides a social check and balance to the web site, keeping the articles reasonably free of inaccurate or misleading information.

    Some experts say that nowadays the use of computers and the Internet has brought information overload that hinders our ability to focus. Nicholas Carr, a scholar,  authored a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 2008 entitled, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” he argues that he feels his friends have trouble focusing on long pieces of writing because of their overexposure to the internet. (2) I think Nicolas is wrong. Google allows us to be more creative in approaching problems and more integrative in our thinking. We spend less time trying to recall and more time generating solutions.

    We are still dealing with the amount of information that is being generated each day. As more and more people become connected through the Internet, we might be tempted to think that we will drown in this information overload. However, experiences will continue to come at us, and we are still developing tools that will help us deal with this. Using these better tools, we will be able to discern from all the data what is relevant to us and what we can safely ignore.

    To understand how computers began their impact on society, we have to go back to the year 1978 to see when the first business application was created for the PC, the spreadsheet Visicalc created by Dan Bricklin. For the first time, a small business can perform What -If analysis without requiring to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a mainframe computer.  Bricklin said of his invention, ‘VisiCalc took 20 hours of work per week for some people and turned it out in 15 minutes and let them become much more creative.’ (Quote Bellis1)

    Wordstar the first word processor that made it very easy to create and edit documents, affecting the way writers wrote. In a quote from Marry Bellis on “The origins of word processing from a rising WordStar”.  She said, ‘I am happy to greet the geniuses who made me a born-again writer, having announced my retirement in 1978, I now have six books in the works and two [probables], all through WordStar.’

    By delegating to computers lower level task, we are free to concentrate on more complex task. Computers by their nature do not have yet a human level intelligence. They do not process intuition, sense of humor, or artistic abilities, but they do something very well which is to perform mathematic calculations. Not only can they do calculations without making mistakes, they can do them very fast. In fact, millions of times faster than the human brain can. It is when you combine a computer’s ability to do lightning fast calculations with our intuition and training that we truly excel. We do this in many fields and industries.

    A field where computers take over complex calculations is the field of avionics. Now computers manage all the avionics in modern airplanes making the pilot not have to worry about controlling each individual part of the airplane and can concentrate instead on the mission. This is normally referred to as Fly-By-Wire. This development was meant to make aircraft do things pilots physically couldn’t do before because the pilot, being human, couldn’t possibly learn the reflexes necessary to keep the plane under control.

    The world of photography has also been influenced by computers. The modern point and shoot photographic camera that is now so popular relies on an embedded computer that adjusts all the different settings that affect the outcome of taking a photograph. The digital circuitry makes all the calculations to balance and adjust shutter speed, iris aperture, white balance, focus,  etc.  By not having to figure these things out ourselves, we can concentrate on the subject and composition of the actual things we want to photograph. As a result, point and shoot cameras have made photography accessible for the masses.

    Architecture has also felt the effects of computer technology. Computers can let you draw perfect lines, circles and calculate perspective angles; thus, architects can concentrate on deciding between different versions of a design instead of spending a lot of time drawing the individual models by hand. “Frank Ghery, a famous architect, is known for his high-tech style of architecture. Ghery’s office uses computers to help construct the sculptural and curvilinear forms of buildings like the Bilbao Museum.” (Architecture and Advertising 52-57)

    The field of medicine, a couple of years ago, announced a major breakthrough in the completion of the Genome project. The Genome project was able to be completed thanks to the ability of the computer to do millions of calculations per second. This represents a key advantage that computers possess. They perform tirelessly the computations humans would be unable to do. As a result of this project, doctors can use the data to find cures for diseases like cancer and other genetic illnesses. “Computers are increasingly being used for record keeping, diagnosis and research in the clinical setting. They improve access to information and thereby improve patient care.” (A Kilobyte of cure, 2)

    Computers in the military are changing the way warfare is conducted. By having computers and sensors supply the data from the field, the commanders can better understand the situation in real time and thus be able to make more informed and timely decisions that can save many lives as a result. The army already has planes called Drones that can fly without the pilot, taking the human out of harm’s way. According to a Reuters article by Phil Stewart  “The drones have proven to be a crucial technological advantage for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, allowing it to remotely track and kill insurgents and giving troops eyes-in-the-sky battleground imagery in real time.”

    As can be seen in these examples of technology being used in many different types of industry computers are not replacing or hindering our ability to reason but are augmenting and expanding our intellectual capabilities. They function more and more as extension of ourselves, making us something greater that we currently are. We have gone through this before. Before cars were invented, you had better know how to ride a horse or you would not get around too far. I imagine not a lot of people know how to ride a horse now, but with cars being so ubiquitous thankfully you don’t need to anymore.

    In the future, as it becomes more common to be connected to the internet, we will have the capability to instantly recall any fact or event in the world. It will be as if our brains got expanded a billion fold, making us able to think and create things we now cannot even imagine

    Work Cited

    1.  Bellis, Mary. “The Origins of Word Processing from a Rising WordStar.” WordStar the First Word Processor. web.1 April. 2010.
    2. Bellis, Mary. “The First Spreadsheet – VisiCalc – Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston.” Inventors of the Modern Computer. web. 1 April. 2010.
    3. Carr, Nicholas. Is Google Making us Stupid? Atlantic Magazine. Jul-Aug.2008. web.1 April. 2010.
    4. Greengard, Samuel. Are we losing our ability to think critically? Communications of the ACM Digital Library volume 52, Number 7 (2009),
    5. Pages 18-19. Internet Archive. 2009. web. 1 April. 2010.
    6. Hornbeck, Elizabeth. Architecture and Advertising. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), Vol. 53, No. 1), pp. 52-57. Blackwell. Sep., 1999 print.
    7. Hurt, Valerie. A Kilobyte of Cure. The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 1995), p. 2.
    8. Stanford, Conn. “Gartner Says Worldwide PC Shipments to Grow 2.8 Percent in 2009, but PC Revenue to Decline 11 Percent”. 23 Nov, 2009.
    9. Internet Archive. web. 23 Nov, 2009.
    10. Stewart Phil. “U.S. Hopes to Give Pakistan Drones within a Year.” Reuters.web. 29 Mar, 2010.

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