I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

March 3, 2010

Impact of technology on kids’ thinking abilities

While there’s no denying that kids need to learn about computers and the Web, my biggest fear is that the constant bombardment by media in all its channels will have a negative impact on attention and being able to focus and synthesize information.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_A-ZVCjfWf8

One of the things that struck me most watching that video was how much time kids spend being “plugged in.”  I’m not opposed to the use of “engaging technologies” in schools, but there should be a way to transition kids more gradually than just plugging them in all the time.

For the past several years John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge (which has been referred to as an online salon), asks a question of scores of philosophers, scientists, scholars, technology analysts, software gurus, and so forth.

This year’s question was How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? There were many, many fascinating answers.  Here are links to just a couple answers that I think reflect on the issue of computer and media literacy.

Paul Saffo, in “A Third Kind of Knowledge,” notes Samuel Johnson’s observation that there were “two kinds of knowledge: that which you know, and that which you know where to get.”  Saffo says that we now have need of a third kind:

The Internet has changed our thinking, but if it is to be a change for the better, we must add a third kind of knowledge to Johnson’s list — the knowledge of what matters. … Knowing what matters is more than mere relevance. It is the skill of asking questions that have purpose, that lead to larger understandings.

It is being able to learn Saffo’s third type of knowledge, and the ability to concentrate and focus so that kids can synthesize data and information into those larger understandings, that I am concerned about.

Author Howard Rheingold, in “Attention Is the Fundamental Literacy,” says, “Every second I spend online, I make decisions about where to spend my attention.”  He says that people lacking in attention and other essential literacies like “crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness” can be prey to dangers such as “shallowness, credulity, distraction, alienation, [and] addiction.”

Rheingold says something similar to Saffo, in distinguishing between “know-how” and “how-to-know,” and says that the mental temptations of the Web pose dangers only for the untrained mind.  Rheingold places the ultimate responsibility of the health of the Web on whether enough people become responsible “Netizens.”  (So where does that leave us if that doesn’t happen?)

Saffo would probably agree with Rheingold’s basic assessment, but given Saffo’s opinion of what people are using the Web for, I suspect that he’s a bit more pessimistic:

Now we revel in search, but most of what we search for isn’t worth seeking, as the top search lists on Google, Yahoo and Bing make clear. Couch potatoes who once channel-surfed their way through TV’s vast wasteland have morphed into mouse potatoes Google-surfing the vaster wasteland of Cyberspace. They are wasting their time more interactively, but they are still wasting their time.

(For some reason this calls to mind Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”)

Regarding who’s responsible for how we use the Web, Larry Sanger, cofounder of Wikipedia and Citizendium, in “The Un-focusing, De-Liberating Effects of the Hive Mind,” asks:

Do we have any choice about ceding control of the self to an increasingly compelling “Hive Mind”? Yes. And should we cede such control, or instead strive, temperately, to develop our own minds very well and direct our own attention carefully? The answer, I think, is obvious.

Sanger takes more of a middle road than many of those who opine about the Web.  He’s skeptical of the claims of some who argue that we don’t need to memorize facts anymore and that we can just plug into the “group mind” of the Web.  On the other hand, he’s also critical of those who feel that they are compelled to participate in social networks by a “collective will.”  He notes that “the exercise of freedom requires focus and attention” and says that we retain free will.

“…we obviously have the freedom not to participate in such networks. And we have the freedom to consume the output of such networks selectively, and holding our noses — to participate, we needn’t be true believers.”

“So,” Sanger continues:

…it is very hard for me to take the “woe is us, we’re growing stupid and collectivized like sheep” narrative seriously.  If you feel yourself growing ovine, bleat for yourself.

But perhaps his true feelings are best reflected in his comment regarding the argument that social networks are turning too many kids into a bunch of ignoramuses (“as Mark Bauerlein argues cogently in The Dumbest Generation“) when Sanger states “For the record, I’ve started homeschooling my own little boy.”

While I agree with Sanger that adults bear responsibility for themselves, it is because of children that I have the biggest problem with his argument.  Children are subject to a lot of peer pressure, both explicitly and implicitly.  Do they have the willpower and self-discipline to know when enough is enough?

(If this post doesn’t make sense it’s probably because I’ve spent too much time on the Web!)

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