Do Smart Phones Make Us Dumber? Asking The Internet's Intelligence Questions

"Zombification" at work?
"Zombification" at work?
Benoît Georges

PARIS - Do the Internet and digital devices make us happier and more efficient. Or do they just make us less intelligent?

Two new books try to answer the question asked by Nichols Carr in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Italian linguist Raffaele Simone and French philosopher Jean-Michel Besnier deliver very different views on the matter.

According to Simone, modern men and women are “caught in the Web,” absorbed in the “media sphere”, which he describes as an “environment in which online electronic media play a fundamental role,” and create, “from nothing, trends, needs and new pressures.”

It can be annoying – or amusing – to watch the frenzy with which other people handle their smartphones and tablets. The author asks himself “in which depths were buried this spectacular need to communicate that we have been observing around the world since the cell phone was invented?”

The problem is that the Web has a great impact on our intelligence. According to Simone, we are currently in the middle of the “third phase” of knowledge acquisition. The first phase was when we started writing; the second phase was the invention of the printing press. There is one difference – both those phases relied on text, while the third phase is dominated by images and sounds.

Written knowledge allows thoughts to be structured and more complex than oral communications. It is based on a specific form of intelligence Simone called “sequential” – meaning the way we assimilate new information, one after the other. The Web and videos, on the other hand, favor a “simultaneous” form of intelligence – we are capable of taking in different types of information at the same time but without “being able to put them in order as a logical succession, with hierarchy.”

While there is text on digital devices, it has multiple forms: It’s copied, pasted and constantly re-written – it gets “dissolved,” says Simone. In the end, the automatic and systematic filing of data (photo, video, audio and textual) leads to a paradoxical mass “amnesia,” when we ask the search engines to do the tasks our memory are supposed to do, we deeply modify our capacity to remember things.

Operator or zombie?

Our tendency to use electronic tools for skills that used to be considered essential is what The Simplified Man, Jean-Michel Besnier’s latest book is all about. Using the example of interactive voice response (IVR) systems that have replaced customer services, he asks a simple question: “How does the cultured species that we are, born from the Age of Enlightenment and having witnessed totalitarianism, let itself become a slave to its machines?”

The situations in which we delegate our responsibility to objects or programs are multiplying: Search engines algorithms decide which websites best match our needs; the so called “service” robots that are supposed to take better care than us of the elderly or autistic children; the GPS navigators without which we are completely lost…

Drawing from literature (George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Fritz Zorn, etc.) and philosophy (Plato, Hannah Arendt, etc.), Besnier believes this dehumanization existed long before computers. According to him, the industrial revolution – that transformed men into operators of machines that were more powerful than them – was already part of this movement.

In the end, Jean-Michel Besnier draws a rather bleak perspective. Far for liberating us, the technological society denies us the awareness of being unique – which leads to depression and “zombification.”

Simone is less adamant. While he believes that “it might be beneficial to admit we have irrevocably lost some forms of knowledge,” he doesn’t think it’s possible “to anticipate what will happen to the new forms of knowledge being created.”

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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