Pattern Recognition: How Technology Might Make Us Smarter

There is a lot of talk about how technology might be making us stupid. The examples are legion, and possibilities endless: we can’t spell anymore; we can’t remember anything anymore because we have a big, giant, virtual brain called the internet; we have flea-like attention spans; etc, etc, etc,..

To over-generalize like this is certainly giving technology a bum rap. And of course, many argue the opposite – that using different technologies improves key abilities  like working memory and eye-hand coordination. I think that there is always the risk of losing skills (aka becoming more stupid) if use shortcuts all the time and look at things superficially rather than using our brains to understand something at a deeper level. But there are many opportunities to gain new abilities via technology.

One ability that I think might be enhanced by the use of internet-based platforms, like social media, web browsers, and online shopping, is pattern recognition. From the point of view of psychology, pattern recognition refers to perceiving that a set of separate items make up a greater whole – such as faces, objects, words, melodies, etc. This process often happens automatically and spontaneously, and seems to be an innate ability of most animals. Certainly, the tendency to see patterns is fundamentally human – even patterns that don’t exist, such as the Man in the Moon.

How would using the internet help strengthen our pattern recognition abilities? To use the internet, we have to become skilled at skimming through large quantities of information rapidly, instantly judging whether we’ve found the information, website, or person that we’re looking for. Also, we have to rapidly shift from site to site. To process all that information slowly and serially would keep us busy all day. We have to put it together, see the patterns, and glean the information that we need. Children are frighteningly good at this. They have no difficulty sorting through complex arrays of information and graphics.  It feels like they read the patterns of the computer interfaces like native speakers. It’s not for nothing that we call children growing up today digital natives.

One of my favorite books of the last decade, Pattern Recognition, by the great technovisionary William Gibson, plays with the idea of what pattern recognition means to us today. Set in the present (rather than some future dystopia, which is more usual for him), the protagonist, Cayce (pronounced case not cas-ee) has an extreme psychological sensitivity to corporate logos, and has what amounts to an allergic reaction to successful advertising. So, companies hire her to judge the effectiveness of their proposed corporate logos and advertising strategies. Her ability is to effortlessly identify the je ne sais quoi – that special pattern – that makes a logo powerful and effective. I think that Gibson is thinking about our era as one in which highly skilled pattern recognition defines what we do and who we are becoming.

So, the question arises: Does that mean I want to sit my 3-year-old in front of a device for hours a day to help him build these abilities? No. But perhaps focusing on the skills he can build will help me think through how to structure his use of things like the iPad more effectively – such as what apps to choose for him, how to dovetail what he’s learning on the device with what he’s doing in the world (e.g., building blocks all the time, learning about letters and numbers), and how to help him see the patterns in what he’s doing.

Of course it is way too simplistic to demonize any technology by saying it will make us stupid. It’s all about the costs and benefits of how we use the technology. That’s why the research community needs to step up to the plate and try to understand how all these aspects of our children’s technological lives are changing them (or not) – what technology offers us, and what we in turn bring to the table in that equation.  We know shockingly little. As parents, we can either cut our children off from technology all together, or try to use our best judgment and make our children’s interactions with technology useful and powerful.  As adults, we can do the same – clearly, we need to think carefully about how we want to integrate these devices into our lives.

Now, sit down and look through your twitter feed or Facebook newsfeed, and see all the information you have to sort through. Tons of it! Reams – just in a given day…. And feel how your pattern recognition abilities are growing!


10 thoughts on “Pattern Recognition: How Technology Might Make Us Smarter

  1. We use the iPad frequently as a tool with my ADHD nephew. There are many apps out there that help with pattern recognition, basic skills in math and reading. I think it helps my nephew quite a bit. On the other hand, I am not a fan of his watching TV, although it may be just Dora the Explorer.

    1. I let my preschool aged son use my iPad, with limits, but I can definitely say that between SuperWhy and iPad apps, he learned all about ABCs and spelling. It’s nice that the iPad compared to TV is less passive!

  2. I’m going to comment on this post too ok? 😉

    Pattern recognition is a very broad term but if you’re talking about being able to draw a key underlying thread from a vast sea of data then I’d propose that the human brain is uniquely suited to this. All technology seems to be able to do is present more choices at a faster rate.

    Maybe all we need to do is come up with a better way of explaining/teaching discernment to our youngsters which will give them a better framework for making choices? Many adults don’t even get to a point in their lives where they take responsibility for what they spend their time ‘consuming’. There’s definitely a ‘garbage in/garbage out’ thing going on here.

    At the moment I’m trying to get the idea across to people about their choice between creation and consumption. In the main technology is sold on the basis of being an even greater platform for consumption. The future, fulfilment and self-actualization really comes to those who create… Technology as a fabulous means of creation (and distribution) is great. Technology as a conduit for consumption? Not so useful and very possibly harmful.

    Now my brain hurts

    1. My brain hurts, too 🙂 And yes, I agree that pattern recognition is something very human, but all sorts of animals can do it. Perhaps it’s just the key to being evolutionarily successful?

      Interesting points about consumption versus creation.

  3. I absolutely LOVE Pattern Recognition. You might want to read some of his older books as well. In particular, Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties have a very similar kind of pattern based theme.

    As for technology and pattern recognition, I agree that it is improving through the use of technology. Laney (the data analyst in the second series I mentioned) works his ‘magic’ by moving through vast amounts of data, seeing the patterns in a lot of disparate things. In that way.

    I think that’s were we are headed. Because we have vast amounts of information at our fingertips, we will need to become good at determining what matters and what doesn’t. Whether or not we can see patterns in trivial things isn’t that great. We need to be able to determine what information is and isn’t relevant. It’s not just the ability to see patterns that matters. Whether or not technology will enable us to see what is important… we’ll see.

  4. As a part of Gen Z I’ve grown up being told how bad technology was/is for us, but I find your take on it very interesting. I run : and I’ve touched on how technology has changed our generation. I find it interesting that you say “smarter” as I’ve always just thought we were become more useful for the evolving world rather than actually more intelligent. You can read more on there, but I like your take on this, it’s making me think! Thanks for showing a new perspective!

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