Crossing the covered bridge on the St. Michaels nature trail my friend and I heard splashing from all directions in the San Domingo Creek. Normally it is a quiet, calm river, but that day we observed a number of animals appearing briefly on the surface and splashing. It took us almost 45 minutes to problem solve and identify the source to be cownose rays mating. Long thought to be a major threat to oysters and crabs, Chesapeake Bay biologists have determined that they are merely opportunistic feeders. Recognizing their value to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and its tributaries, in 2017, Maryland imposed a ban on cownose ray mass killings.
An onlooker would have been amused by our observations as we tried to solve the mystery of the multiple splashes, spying a skin here, a fin there. We generated a number of hypotheses before we finally “solved” the puzzle.
While we thoroughly enjoyed observing and finally solving our mystery, we knew that someone raised with the Internet would have consulted their phone and quickly solved it.
My brother refers to our “problem-solving” conversation as: “Old people wondering about stuff.”
Indeed, my generation uses its memory and experience to problem solve first. We typically go to our phone after we are flummoxed or to confirm a hypothesis.
Our children’s generation just quickly solves the riddle by looking it up on the Internet.
So I was musing and wondering if anything has been lost by a generation that uses the Internet for problem solving. My generation didn’t have immediate access to information, and we learned to problem solve by searching for clues, and using our memories and logic to answer a question (not always correctly).
So I looked it up. (On the Internet!) To see if there was any research to assess the impact of the Internet on our problem solving capabilities. I could find little interest in that question.
Research in the education world has been focused on how to train students to use the Internet effectively and teach them how to recognize bogus vs. factual information. (Obviously this skill is needed, all one needs to do is remember the outrageous stories by Q-Anon and the damage that it caused on January 6th.)
At Bell Laboratories, I researched allocation of the human/computer interface. Computers have infinite, therefore, better memories than humans; but humans were better at problem solving than early computers. For that reason, we allocated problem solving and critical thinking skills to humans and memory to computers.
But, even then, we recognized that allocating memory functions to computers would cause our memory skills to atrophy.
An article in the Atlantic by Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor and computer-science professor at Harvard, posed the issue of the “rotting” Internet. Since information on the Internet is de-centrally sourced by multiple contributors, the data on the Internet can become outdated and there is no mechanism for removing it on a timely basis.
Zittrain brought up the issue of problem solving. He wrote about a teacher who asked his students a question about literature to inspire critical thinking. Instead, all of his students immediately went to Google the answer.
(Without any data to support it his proposal) Zittrain recommended that we teach students to spend 15 minutes problem solving before searching the Internet.
I don’t know the answer to the question that I posed; but I do know that the world changes. When we moved from an agrarian country to an industrialized nation, there was fear that a lot of agricultural and natural knowledge would be lost (it probably was, but a lot of that information became outdated and was no longer needed).
And so, we are changing. The next generation is relying on finding quick solutions in a fast changing world.
While our generation is content to problem solve and be “old people wondering about stuff.”
Is anything lost? Or is the tradeoff that we can rapidly solve the problem and move quickly to another?
I am not sure, let me look it up on the Internet.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.