Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Are we Smarter than Our Parents?

I have just finished reading the book Everything Bad is Good for You, a book that argues that modern pop culture has become so complex that it requires a good deal of intelligence to comprehend it. The basic idea is that today's tv shows, games, and culture are significantly more complex than their counterparts of a generation ago were, and therefore people need to put more brain power into understanding them than our parents did. The book makes a convincing case that this is so. Steven Johnson shows how, on average, popular culture is more complex than it used to be, and that that is driving intelligence to higher levels.

This got me thinking. Much of pop culture is a wasteland. There are some aspects of it that are challenging, complex, and require considerable smarts to decipher, but on the whole pop culture is a waste of time. On the other hand, there are two aspects of modern society that are rapidly becoming more complex, and that all of us have to deal with on a daily basis. Perhaps these, more than pop culture, are contributing to a general increase in some forms of intelligence.

The first is our jobs. Over the past two generations western society has moved from being based on manual labour to being based on highly-skilled labour. Sixty years ago anyone in good physical shape could find work as a labourer, and be reasonably well paid for it. Today one typically needs a skill to get even low-paying jobs, and those skills can take years to learn. Today white collar employees outnumber blue collar ones. A high school diploma is barely enough to get a job at a fast food joint. If we want a career we need to train, and often train hard. Then when we find work it often involves using a considerable amount of intelligence to do the job. This is not just true for white collar jobs. Working on a road crew, for example, requires learning how to use sophisticated machinery. Being a plumber involves learning byzantine regulations. Today's workplace tends to require far smarter employees than did yesterday's.

The second aspect is how we get to work. Two generations ago most people either walked or took public transportation. Today, almost everyone drives. Driving takes skill. Anyone can learn to operate a car in a few weeks. But it takes about twenty years for a person to become a really good driver, as evidenced by the fact that crash rates tend to plateau for drivers in their mid-thirties. A driver has to keep track of many things at once, and do a good job of predicting what other drivers will do. Failure to do this can result in death. Most people in the US and Canada spend at least an hour a day driving. And whether they realize it or not their brains are working in high gear while they do. Roads are far more crowded than they were two generations ago, and cars are faster. The complexity of driving has increased over the past sixty years, and so has the intelligence needed to drive.

So, the average person today faces far more mental challenges on a daily basis than the average person did thirty or sixty years ago. Does this mean that we are more intelligent than our parents or grandparents? In some sense yes, it does. It takes far more skill to earn a living today than it did in 1947. It takes far more skill to drive a car today than it did in 1947. Our problem solving and analytical skills probably are stronger than our parents' were. However, today we tend to live in smaller social units than our parents and grandparents did. Extended families today are people that we see for a few days a year. Sixty years ago they were people that we saw several times a week. When we drive to work we do not talk to the person next to us on the bus. In fact, it is easy today to go an entire day without talking to anyone outside of our homes or offices. Our social circles are smaller than they were a generation or two ago, and that can adversely affect our social intelligence. So, we gain one form of smarts at the cost of another form.

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