Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

5 August 2011

Digital Helplessness(?)

Clark @ 8:26 AM

Recently, I’ve been hearing quite a bit of concern over the possibility that reliance on digital, and increasingly mobile, technology may make us stupider.  And I don’t think this is just easy to dismiss.  In a sense, it could be a case of learned helplessness, where folks find themselves helpless because after using the tools, folks might not have the information they need when they don’t have the tools.

Recently announced research  shows that folks change what they remember when enabled with search engines: they don’t remember the data, but instead how to find it.  Which could be a problem if they needed to know the data and are not digitally enabled in some context.

As has also been conveyed to me as a concern is whether folks might not engage in learning about their environs (e.g. when traveling), and in other ways miss out on opportunities to learn when dependent on digital devices.  Certainly, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been concerned about how disabled I feel when dissociated from my digital support (my external brain).  Yet is there a concern?

My take is that it might be a concern if people are doing it unconsciously.  I think you could miss out (as m’lady points out when I am reading instead of staring out the window every moment as we take the train through another country :) on some opportunities to learn.

On the other hand, if you are choosing consciously what you want to remember, and what you want to leave to the device, then I think you’re making a choice about how you allocate your resources (a ‘good thing’).  We do this in many ways in our lives already, for instance how much we choose to learn about cooking, and more directly related, how much to learn about how to do formatting in a word processing program.

Yes, I’ve been frustrated without my support when traveling, but that’s chosen (which does not undermine my dismay at the lack of ability to access digital data overseas).  I guess I’m arguing for chosen helplessness :).  So, what are you choosing to learn and what to devolve to resources?


  1. Plato had perhaps the first blog posting on this topic. As quoted by James Gleick in “The Information”, p. 30, Plato states “For this invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in theminds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.”

    Comment by Peter Wolcott — 6 August 2011 @ 1:24 PM

  2. I’ve also been starting to think about the effect that our use of new communications media will have – or should that be is having – on the way we think and learn. We often have ‘conversations’ through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, some important, others not so much! Do we remember the words as clearly as we would if we didn’t know we could wind back through the digital history? Probably not. What I won’t devolve to resources is the change in attitude that should result from a meaningful interaction with another person.

    Comment by James Hobson — 8 August 2011 @ 1:51 PM

  3. I think you’ve pointed out beautifully how the learning does not stop at the end of the course. In order for learning to “stick” there needs to be action taken after the reading is over, which is beyond what eLearning can offer for now, but not for long. Love the Plato quote from Peter Wolcott too.

    Comment by Pam Robertson — 17 August 2011 @ 3:43 AM

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