Smartphones, stupid people

Smartphones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts, argues David Pogue in Scientific American.

When my father was growing up, his father offered him 25 cents to memorize the complete list of U.S. presidents. “Number one, George Washington. Number two, John Adams …”

A generation later my dad made the same deal with me, upping the reward to $5. (The prize had grown, he explained, “because of inflation and because there are more presidents now.”)

This year I offered my own son $10 to perform the same stunt. My son, however, was baffled. Why on earth should he memorize the presidents?

Nowadays, he argued, “everybody has a smartphone” and always will.

Smartphones will outsell regular old phones in 2013, writes Pogue. “Having a computer in your pocket is the norm.”

Should we mourn the loss of memorization skills? “Having a store of ready information” could be more fundamental and important than other obsolete skills, he speculates. But, no, he decides.

. . . we’ve confronted this issue before—or, at least, one that is almost exactly like it. When pocket calculators came along, educators and parents were alarmed about students losing the ability to perform arithmetic using paper and pencil. After hundreds of generations of teaching basic math, were we now prepared to cede that expertise to machines?

Yes, we were. Today calculators are almost universally permitted in the classroom. . . .

In the end, we reasoned (or maybe rationalized) that the critical skills are analysis and problem solving—not basic computation. Calculators will always be with us. So why not let them do the grunt work and free up more time for students to learn more complex concepts or master more difficult problems?

And how has that worked?

With students freed from memorizing facts, maybe they’ll “focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance),” Pogue writes.

And maybe winged pigs will play hockey on the ice in hell.

About Joanne


  1. Yeah, that whole calculators in the classroom thing is working great.

    The boy’s logic reminds me of my brother at that age. He reasoned that the multiplication table was right there in his Trapper Keeper, so why memorize it? Now that he is nearly 40, he has mentioned a few times that he really wishes he had learned math better as a kid. Playing catch-up with an adult brain is hard.

    So my point is, that logic is childish. Knowing stuff without having to stop and Google it is important. Are you really going to hold up a business meeting while you look up the answer to a simple question? When someone you want to impress asks you your opinion on the events in Mali, are you going to admit you don’t know where that is and open up a Wikipedia page so you can have a conversation? If you’re missing ordinary background knowledge, you won’t even know that you *are* missing it. You’ll just be oblivious to much of what is going on in the world a lot of the time. Oh, and you’ll probably wind up with a ruinous mortgage because you don’t understand interest rates.

    Preaching to the choir, sorry. :)

    • Oops, I just really properly read the last paragraph. “But whether we like it or not, we may as well admit that the rest of it will probably soon go the way of calligraphy, the card catalogue and long division.”

      I think my head exploded. Cursive is good for the brain, and calligraphy is still a lovely art. Card catalogs are too large to maintain these days, but honestly, we lost something when we got rid of them. A computer catalog search and a card catalog search conducted simultaneously always yielded differing, and interesting, results because they worked differently. And LONG DIVISION…the mind boggles at the idea of dismissing it as a relic of the dead past.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “And LONG DIVISION…the mind boggles at the idea of dismissing it as a relic of the dead past.”


        Let me quote from the 1989 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NTCM) “Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics”. The document recommends for grades K-4:
        “Decreased Attention to Complex paper-and-pencil computations … long division, long division without remainders …” (p21)


        The document goes on to explain in the section on grades 5-8 that “Basic skills today and in the future mean far more than computational proficiency. Moreover, the calculator renders obsolete much of the complex paper-and-pencil proficiency traditionally emphasized in mathematics courses. … If students have not been successful in ‘mastering’ basic computational skills in previous years, why should they be successful now, especially if the same methods that failed in the past are merely repeated? In fact, considering the effect of failure on students’ attitudes, we might argue that further efforts towards mastering computational skills are counterproductive.”


        De-emphasizing long division became the NCTM party line in 1989. I have read that they have back peddled a bit since, but have not read the newer documents myself.

        • If they couldn’t get the hang of long division what do you think the chances are they will understand algebra?

          • Mark Roulo says:

            “…what do you think the chances are they will understand algebra?”


            Same document, page 71 in the section on grades 5-8 suggests “Decreased Attention” to “manipulating symbols” in the algebra section. Symbols are, I think, okay once the students have reached 9th grade.


            I’ll point out that Russian 3rd graders are starting to see symbols for very simple algebraic expressions. Like this:


            Solve the following equations:
            (580 – b)/4 = 100
            (x + 70) * 4 = 328
            [page 115 of "Russian Grade 3 Mathematics", translated by The University of Chicago School Mathematics Project]


            The Russians and our NCTM seem to have very different goals for mathematics instruction.

        • …I don’t even know what to say about that.

  2. The overuse of calculators in the classroom, starting
    the availability of affordable scientific calculators in
    the late 1970′s has pretty much ruined the math ability
    of a generation and a half of public school students.

    What would happen if all of the technology that we took
    for granted in daily use suddenly stopped working? If we
    had to go back to doing things with pencil and paper, the
    country would pretty much fall apart inside of a month due
    to the lack of people who actually have the needed skills.

    Kind of reminds me of the people who think GPS is a
    replacement for carrying a map, and then getting
    stranded in death valley in summertime, due to the
    fact that the GPS is wrong.

    Another case which comes to mind is where a house
    was cleaned out and demolished by workers using GPS
    instead of actually LOOKING at the address of the house they were supposed to demolish. I guess the moral to this
    story is you can’t teach common sense.

    • Yes! I was in a local bakery during a recent power outage, and none of the four counter workers (all HS grads; four different, supposedly-good schools) could calculate sales tax with a calculator. They had no idea how to input/format data and had no idea how to calculate 6%. It took me 10 minutes to teach them – hindered by the fact that none (1) knew the relationship between sales tax rate and dollars or (2) knew that 6% = .06 = 6/100. So much for critical thinking.

      • If I was the owner of that shop, I’d have fired all of the workers on the spot.

        Not knowing how to do basic math (even with a calculator) is a sign you didn’t earn whatever diploma
        they handed you after 12 years of high school, 2 years
        in a community college, or 4 years in a university.

        I could have also said “You need to contact your state board of education, due to the fact that you were given
        something you actually didn’t earn”.

        Though I doubt that would happen (sigh)

      • This happened to you again? You’re like the Roy Sullivan of run-ins with math-illiterate counterpersons. I don’t even want to know if they needed help figuring out your order of 2 and 2/9ths of a pound of butter cookies.

        • Heh, that was momof4, and if you want to see how well
          your staff can actually do, see what happens in a power
          outage, almost NOTHING can get done, due to the
          fact that no one actually knows how to do anything anymore.

          I remember a few years ago that a local carl’s jr was
          closed all day due to the fact that no one in the store
          could activate the gas line and burners after the gas
          company staffers fixed a leak and pressure tested
          the line.

          It probably cost the franchise owner a couple of
          grand in sales due to the lack of knowledge of
          the workers.

          • Quite. That happened on a Saturday morning, and I was at the front of a line stretching out the door. By the time the staff had told the customer behind me that she owed $16.00 on a purchase of $10, everyone else had left.

      • Yep, I ran into this at the little corner market a few months ago: I handed the guy a $10, he rang it up, then I remembered I had a quarter in my pocket and put it up on the counter too. Since the register had already figured the change, the extra quarter (the bill was $8.12 I think) messed the guy up completely. He said, “well, it’s too early in the morning for my brain to do math.”

        I said, “Dude, it’s two dollars and thirteen cents, trust me.” He did.

  3. Argh. People who say “there are smartphones” need to learn about how computers cache data (I’m a software engineer specializing in high-performance scientific computing).

    Fast cache is expensive and small, big memory is cheap but has high latency. So a CPU has a level-0 cache for fast access. L1,L2,L3 are bigger but slower.

    RAM is much slower than cache
    Disk is much slower than RAM
    Internet is much slower than disk

    Making computers solve problems as quickly as possible means staying in the cache, reading disk as rarely as possible, and never hitting a network unless you absolutely have to.

    So everything becomes slower if you have to look it up on the internet
    to the degree that thinking becomes impossible. Why should we learn words if we have dictionaries online? Because a conversation is impossible.

    You won’t be able to have mathematical thinking if you have to look everything up. As for long division, learning it drills multiplication and addition, plus gives you estimation skills.

    Smart phones mean you don’t have to memorize EVERYTHING, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t memorize ANYTHING.

    • If you’re a software engineer, you probably know
      Weinberg’s 2nd Law:

      If builders built buildings the way programmers
      wrote programs, the first woodpecker to come
      along would destroy all of civilization :)

  4. The problem I find wth my kids is that they memorize the facts and learn the paper and pencil methods just fine, but since there is no occasion to use these skills, after a couple of years they forget. My suggestion is to teach how to do math in your head. This is still quite useful and you can have the answer while another person would still be finding the calculator app on their phone.

  5. Welcome Skynet!

    We’ll always have them? Sure, as long as there’s no EMP or giant solar flares. Then there’s the inanities of not having a darned clue how big ANYTHING IS.

    I walked in on a conversation nearly 20 years ago – colleague was yammering on about how McDonalds was going to open 80,000 stores in India in the next 5 years. HORSEHOCKEY! I said a split second later. Why she asked?

    1) Currently there are about 15,000 in the US – McDonald’s home base. They don’t have the capital to open that many stores that fast.
    2) India isn’t very affluent and despite growing GDP suffers from huge wealth inequalities. Fast food is a bit of a luxury thing when you live in a sheet metal shanty.
    3) A significant portion of the population is vegetarian.
    4) Some people there revere cows – and not just because they are so useful and tasty.

    Today McDonalds has about 35,000 outlets globally. I analyzed a statement and formed a conclusion without having to look anything up. If I didn’t have any actual data, I’d have probably have swallowed the hogwash.

    Reasoning without data is like trying to have a fire without fuel.

    • Let me get this straight. Every year for the last 20 years you have memorized the number of McDonalds outlets in the USA. Your proof that this diligent memorizing paid off is that on one day in 20 years, you were able to win a trivial argument with a co-worker. Sorry, sometimes memorizing things is a waste of time.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Or … 20 years ago Sean knew the rough number of McDonalds outlets (maybe there had been an article on the subject around that time) and was able to use that information to conclude that the 80K number for India was unreasonable.


        As an example of how *knowing* something rather than looking it up, it is pretty good.

      • Ray: It was meant as a humorous anecdote. Having data in your head is useful. Like for sizing problems. I remember as part of interviewing Ivy League undergrads asking estimation questions; like how many ping pongs fit in a 747 (ie: can you build and use a mathematical model). When they said “I’d Google it”; the interview was unofficially over.

        Don’t get me started on the guy who had a database about all the McDonald’s he ate at in his travels around the world. He had entries for over 1000 stores.

        Mark: I wasn’t just a customer; I was a shareholder.

  6. People still listen to David Pogue?

  7. I’ve said this a zillion times: you can’t think critically about something unless you have some knowledge to draw on. You can’t just look something up and then “think critically”.

    • Some people see this as a feature and not a bug. There are many politicians and politilical organizations today that depend upon “low information” (read “ignorant”) voters.

  8. Foobarista says:

    More important than the odd EMP or zombie apocalypse is what I think of as “information awareness”. Sure, few people have a need to know who the Nth President is, but it is useful to at least be aware that Rutherford B. Hayes or Chester Arthur were Presidents, approximately when they were Presidents, and a few facts about them.

    Same goes for stuff like long division; you only build intuition about something by actually dealing with it manually for at least some time.

    Also, relational information is also important; if you didn’t know that Japan invaded China and did nasty things to many countries in East Asia, you wouldn’t know why it’s so hard for people over there to “forgive & forget”. If you don’t know who Mohammad Mosadegh or the Shah of Iran are, you may not be able to figure out much about Iranian policy today. Knowing how to type strings into wikipedia won’t help with this sort of thing – you have to have encountered it, thought about it, and seen how these individual data points relate together.

  9. We could always defer to Socrates on the dangers of over-reliance on advanced technologies.

  10. Mike in Texas says:

    Isaac Asimov wrote a very interesting short story about a society where no one can do basic math. I can’t remember the name of it.

    Of course, an internet connected cell phone does you no good if you are in an area where there is no cell service (yes, they still exist).

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      It’s called, “The Feeling of Power.” Written in 1957 (!) and can be found here:

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      He did. And one guy more or less accidentally figured it out. Seems that, not needing huge computers, warships having numerate crews were going to be smaller, smarter and faster.
      “Two plus two equals four,” he thought, and he didn’t need his calculator to tell him. I think that is the last line of the story. The numbers may be different.

    • Mmm, it can still do you quite a bit of good without an Internet connection.

      Hardly a phone is now made that doesn’t include GPS. That can be pretty useful without an Internet connection.

      Then there’s the storage the capacity which is already in the low gigabyte range, destined to go into the tens of gigabytes range in the near future and God knows what a few more years out. I think maybe some pretty good uses could be found for all that storage if anyone decided to set their mind to it.

      I wasn’t all that impressed with “The Feeling of Power” back when I came across it and time hasn’t improved my view of the story. Asimov would have done his readership a greater service with an allegory about the limitations, both selfish and intellectual, of experts.

      • Mike in Texas says:

        We’ve had our share of disagreements in the past, but you DON’T LIKE ASIMOV???????

        • I didn’t particularly care for “The Feeling of Power”.

          I thought Asimov was trying too hard to impart the lesson that an over-reliance on technology carries dangers. In this case the dangers were easily observable by those of superior insightfulness, i.e. the reader.

          I’ve got standards. If a writer insists on pandering to me I insist that they do so in a manner which doesn’t verge on parody.

  11. palisadesk says:

    “an internet connected cell phone does you no good if you are in an area where there is no cell service (yes, they still exist)”.

    Yep, I live in one.