Tools Make Us Smarter

What exactly does it mean that somebody is smart? Scoring a high IQ in a Stanford-Binet test? Being good at math?

Paraphrasing Forrest Gump, smart is what smart does.

If you manage to get things done, to create new things and to produce results that impress, that makes you smart. So the question arises: how do we get there?

We have a set of genetic dispositions and learned skills that help us do smart things if properly deployed. IQ is one of them, but not the only one. A great memory or an intuitive capacity to find quick solutions to new situations help too.

But genetic dispositions are inherited, and skill learning takes thousands of hours. In addition to this, we have a really powerful way to quickly boost smarts: tools.

Our brain has been optimized by evolution to activities relevant for a hunter gatherer: hunting, planting and nurturing. It has not been optimized to build space rockets or to make scientific presentations.

As the world changes faster and faster, we need to adapt quicker than biological evolution allows. To this end we need tools.

We need a pen and a paper to keep trains of thought together. We need a Keynote app to visualize our thoughts. We need cloud apps to keep the things that pop in our head in store and to access them when we need them. And we need Google to help us share our information better.

Tools are not just something fun to have around, but they very concretely change the structure of our cognition.

The pen and paper very literally change the way you think. The Keynote app helps you share ideas in a way that you never could without it. The cloud app boosts your memory: you remember better by keeping your notes always available in the cloud. And Google adds up to what you potentially know. It even, as the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers argue, perhaps changes what you believe.

All this helps us to get more things done, to create new things and to produce impressive results. Like space rockets, scientific presentations – or better ways to garden and nurture.

Tools are not just things we pick up towards a goal. They change the very way we think.

Tools make us smarter.