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Psychology of Technology: Is Technology Making Us Idiots?

In his insightful 2008 article in the Atlantic, Nicolas Carr asks, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He goes on to explore how new technology has altered our reading habits and, more unsettlingly, how we process information and think. It is a cerebral piece that meets the high intellectual standards we expect of that august magazine.

I, however, would like to bring his lofty discussion of the impact of new technology on our lives down to the muckier level of human dysfunction. I would suggest that not only is the latest technology making us stupider, but it is also making us just plain idiots!

Of course, we have been prone to idiocy throughout history, long before the latest technological advancements. Whether a mild act of embarrassing idiocy, such as putting one’s foot in one’s mouth with an untoward comment, or an act of career-ending idiocy, such as bad mouthing the boss around the water cooler, idiots abounded, but the “blast area” was limited by the still unsophisticated means of communicating the idiocy to the world.

There also used to be time to avoid acts of idiocy. For example, while writing that angry and insult-laden letter to the girl who just rejected you, putting it into an envelope, addressing it, placing it in the mailbox, and waiting for the mail carrier to arrive, you had ample time to reconsider the suitability of that particular course of action. Due to the slowness of communication in those primitive days, we had the opportunity to, for example, calm down, reflect on our situation, consider the consequences, change our minds, prevent impulsive behavior, and avoid embarrassment, disgrace, or criminal charges.

Technology has made it easier to be idiots because it discourages thinking and deliberation, and promotes acting on our most base impulses, emotions, and needs, for example, anger, sadness, lust, or need for approval. We can be idiots more quickly, be caught in our idiotic acts more easily, and be more publicly humiliated before a far broader audience than ever before. Returning to my rejection example, that entire process of rejection (by a text message perhaps) and reaction can now occur in a matter of seconds and with fewer than 140 characters. Being an idiot has never been more efficient.

My first awareness of when technology could help us be idiots was the Seinfeld episode (season 3, episode 4) in which George (as archetypical an idiot as has ever existed) left an angry rant on his girlfriend’s answering machine while she was away on a trip and the show was devoted to the idiotic lengths to which he went to prevent her from hearing the message. George being George, his first act of idiocy led to a veritable cascade of further idiocy and self-immolation.

There have been plenty of old-technology acts of idiocy such as former President Bush’s, “He’s a Major League a@#hole” remark. The actor Alec Baldwin definitely lost out on father-of-the-year honors when a verbally abusive voicemail left for his daughter was made public.

But these example was from the primitive days before Life 2.0. With the emergence of the Web, email, mobile phones with cameras, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, gossip web sites, and online sleuths, we have newer, faster, and more creative ways to be idiots, plus we now leave digital fingerprints all over our acts of idiocy. And there is an entire army of technophiles ready, willing, and able to immortalize our idiocy for all the world to see.

Let’s consider some well-known acts of high-tech idiocy in recent years. There was the supermodel Kate Moss caught on camera snorting cocaine and, in a similar vein, the Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps photographed taking a bong hit with a camera phone. How about the South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford leaving a stream of emails poignantly memorializing his love affair with his Argentine “soul mate.” And there’s former Senator George Allen’s “macaca” and Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” moments immortalized on YouTube. Of course, no list of acts of idiocy would be complete without Tiger Woods’s digital trail of serial infidelity. What do each of these examples of idiotic acts in this high-tech era have in common? Opportunity, ease, speed, reach, and irreversibility. Welcome to the new age of idiocy.

I know I’ve left many worthy candidates off my list, so feel free to add your own.