It’s a question older than the Parthenon: Do innovations and new technologies make us more intelligent?

A few thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher, as he snacked on dates on a bench in downtown Athens, may have wondered if the written language folks were starting to use was allowing them to avoid thinking for themselves.

Today, terabytes of easily accessed data, always-on Internet connectivity, and lightning-fast search engines are profoundly changing the way people gather information. But the age-old question remains: Is technology making us smarter? Or are we lazily reliant on computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?

“Our environment, because of technology, is changing, and therefore the abilities we need in order to navigate these highly information-laden environments and succeed are changing,” said Susana Urbina, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida who has studied the roots of intelligence.

If there is a good answer to the question, it probably starts with a contradiction: What makes us intelligent–the ability to reason and learn–is staying the same and will never fundamentally change because of technology. On the other hand, technology, from pocket calculators to the Internet, is radically changing the notion of the intelligence necessary to function in the modern world.

Take Diego Valderrama, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. If he were an economist 40 years ago, he may have used a paper, pencil and slide rule to figure out and chart by hand how the local economy might change with a 1 percent boost in taxes. But because he’s a thoroughly modern guy, he uses knowledge of the C++ programming language to create mathematical algorithms to compute answers and produce elaborate projections on the impact of macroeconomic changes to work forces or consumer consumption.

Does that mean he’s not as bright as an economist from the 1950s? Is he smarter? The answer is probably “no” on both counts. He traded one skill for another. Computer skills make him far more efficient and allow him to present more accurate–more intelligent–information. And without them, he’d have a tough time doing his job. But drop him into the Federal Reserve 40 years ago, and a lack of skill with the slide rule could put an equal crimp on his career.

More here.