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Wanna get stupid?!? Then buy an iPad 2.

March 14, 2011

What does the iPad have in common with alcohol and marijuana?

At the risk of sounding hipper than I actually am, allow me to offer a modest proposal: Apple should use the Black Eyed Peas’ 2004 party anthem “Let’s Get It Started” as the theme song for the iPad 2.

Yeah, yeah, I know Apple already used “Let’s Get It Started”  to promote its less-than-dynamic iMac G5 desktop in 2004, but with its lyric “Let’s get stupid!” the song is infinitely more appropriate to the iPad. Because that’s what regular use of the iPad will make you: Stupid.

Oh, you doubt me when I say the iPad will lower your I.Q. faster than a lead cook pot from Roman times? Then don’t just take my word for it.

Instead, take Susan Begley’s recent Newsweek story on the latest research about how the rising tsunami of digital information makes it harder for people to make good decisions. Now add that to Chris O’Shea’s blog post at mediabistro.com showing that people reading on an iPad are “unfocused on content” and — voila! The iPad makes you stupid.

It’s even worse than that, in a couple of ways. Too much information not only makes it harder to choose — between, say, a Ford Fiesta and a Honda Fit, or Cabo and Montego Bay, or Dartmouth and NYU — but also short-circuits the subconscious decision-making system that it now turns out is essential.

“[A]s information finds more ways to reach us, more often, more insistently than ever before, another consequence is becoming alarmingly clear: trying to drink from a firehose of information has harmful cognitive effects,” writes Begley. I love that: “harmful cognitive effects.” Stooo-pid!

Begley’s long, thoughtful report draws on the development of something called “decision science,” which, she says, is beginning “to incorporate research on how the brain processes information.” She cites Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, who observed subjects brains via fMRI while deluging them with information and asking them to make decisions in a mock auction.

“As the information load increased, she found, so did activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions,” Begley reports. “But as the researchers gave the bidders more and more information, activity in the dorsolateral PFC suddenly fell off, as if a circuit breaker had popped.”

It turns out the best decisions are made when the prefrontal cortex hooks up feelings with rational thought. When it crashes, emotion — gut — is divorced from decision making, and the rational minds is left to make choices on its own. Increasingly stupid ones.

And nothing overwhelms the profrontal cortex as efficiently as the iPad, according to the Bonnier Corp.’s Megan Miller, who used focus groups to discover that iPad readers were distracted: “We thought that of course there’s a lot of activity going on on an iPad, when there’s so many things you can be doing — between email, Netflix, playing games, reading magazines — but they’re actually bouncing around a lot more than we thought.”

Begley’s suggestion: Unplug, thereby allowing the highly evolved, little understood subconscious decision-making system to come back into play. “[T]he best prescription for you might be the ‘off’ switch on your smart phone.” Or iPad.

And here comes the bad news: That’s almost impossible to do. It’s as difficult to function as part of the 21st century economy without a smart phone, iPad or at least that ancient device known in Olde English as “ye laptoppe,” as it is without a car.

So are we doomed to increasing stupidity? I’d say, yes. There’s no way to avoid it, as Begley (an optimist, I suspect) grudgingly acknowledges: “Today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinion never stops.”

Consider that mediabistro blog post. Unlike Begley’s story, it’s not meant to be a cautionary report about canaries keeling over in the info-coal mine. No, it’s a jokey, ironic piece about how we should not feel sorry for magazines being poorly read on the iPad. After all, “the purpose of the study was to find ways to make iPad magazine advertising more effective, so we’re sure they’ll figure something out.”

As long as magazines figure out how to make money with ads directed at increasingly distracted readers, it doesn’t matter that human consciousness, like grain in a grist meal, is being ground down to a very fine powder.

 

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 8:32 am

    “You Can’t Fix Stupid”

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 17, 2011 2:47 pm

    Some of what you say may be true. Still, I certainly wouldn’t promote basing decisions on gut instincts alone any more than you do with reason alone. Wait–are we having the ole Caliban v. Ariel debate all over again?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2011 11:38 pm

      What part of “It turns out the best decisions are made when the prefrontal cortex hooks up feelings with rational thought” did you not understand?

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