I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 9, 2010

Caught in the Web

A recent story in USA Today (Always-on technology: Are we adapting, or losing focus? (USA Today, Aug. 4, 2010) by Marco R. della Cava) contrasted two positions regarding the impact of the Web on kids’ ability to think and focus.  The first, advanced by Nicholas Carr (see below), argues that the Web is having a negative impact.  Others argue that it doesn’t.

I discussed some of this in a couple of posts months ago (“Impact of technology on kids’ thinking abilities” and “The Virtual Frontier”).  But being more conscious of the effects of the Web (and not just the Web, but TV as well), viewing my experience with kids in the time since then, along with some other reading, has led me to believe that Carr is right.

I recently finished reading Rafe Esquith’s Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World.  Esquith, who teaches in a public elementary school in Los Angeles, describes the differences between kids who watch a lot of TV and those who don’t.  Anecdotal?  Yes, but highly persuasive.  And I think a lot of studies bear out his observations.

I believe it’s in the article above that someone says that the Web is really no different than TV — and TV hasn’t messed us up.   I would argue that the latter is disputable.  There’s a lot of garbage on TV.

And TV, by including the visual element, naturally draws our attention even more than radio.  And to a kid it can be hypnotic.  The Web requires even more attention.  That makes it even more addictive in a way, but that’s also an improvement of sorts over TV.  TV was a passive medium.  The Web requires you to at least get involved.  But kids’ brains are still developing.  Do most kids have the self-discipline to know when to stop?  Even if they do, can they?  Some studies show that Web use triggers the release of dopamine.

We need to teach kids how to make good decisions

Does this mean we should shut down the Web?  Or prohibit kids from using it?  The answer is obviously no.  The Web is a great tool.  But it can also be a great time-waster.  And too much exposure is not good for kids.  And another reason to be cautious is that marketing has become the predominant driver of the Web.  (See the Wall Street Journal series about Internet privacy for more info on how much information about you companies are tracking so they can target purchasing choices for you.)  Our economy thrives on people who don’t want to delay gratification.  And I think short attention spans make it more difficult to resist buying.  (This would be more coherent, but I’ve spent too much time on the Web.)

I also have to say that I do disagree with some of the comments in the articles about the distraction of hypertext links.  When I was a kid I would often thumb back and forth between pages in encyclopedias and other books, hopping from one reference to another (or even pulling different books off the shelf).  Hyperlinks make it so much easier to check references.  Well, that’s a good example of how people differ.  I find that incredibly useful and I can ignore ones that I’m not interested in.  (Though I have on occasion been known to wander far afield from where I started.)

I’ve also started reading Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World by H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen.  That was written twenty years earlier than Esquith’s book, but also discusses the problems caused by too much exposure to TV, the inability to delay gratification, etc.  It also discusses how the breakdown of family structures after the Second World War and increasing urbanization also have contributed to problems for kids in many ways.  (I’m behind on summarizing books, so I won’t get into the details.)  I do want to say that the book is focused on building up kids and not tearing them down.  It’s based on what the authors call “perceptual psychology.”

‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr: The Internet warps you

Book review by Steve Weinberg, USA Today

“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?” [Carr] asks. His answer, iterated throughout this often repetitive but otherwise excellent book: “The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just like it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

Carr cites numerous studies to delineate not only the impact on the brain, but also the alterations in brain biology that lead to the impact. It turns out the human brain is a shape shifter, the technical term being “neuroplasticity.” The phenomenon is not easy to explain, but Carr is adept at explaining with as little jargon as possible. “As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

A second USA Today story, this one about college students and information technology, contains mention of a study that I thought worth pointing out.

Back to school: Do kids learn as well on iPads, e-books? … (USA Today, Aug. 10, 2010) by Mary Beth Marklein

Some of the newer devices try to mimic traditional study behavior with features such as the ability to highlight text and take notes in the margins. Still, the gee-whiz technology doesn’t necessarily help students study better, suggests a study published this month in Journal of Educational Psychology. Students often highlight too much material, so building a highlighting function into the technology may simply enable students to continue an ineffective habit, the study found. “Worse, they may not even process or understand what they select,” says study author Ken Kiewra, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

‘Dumbest Generation’? Professor blames technology by Erin Thompson, USA Today, June 3, 2009

Reviews Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), recently released in paperback (Tarcher/Penguin, 236 pp.).

August 7, 2010

Ecological Intelligence

I recently began reading Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, who  is probably best known for his books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.  He puts ecological intelligence in a different category that some of the other intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in that ecological intelligence has to be developed because the activities, and the impacts they have, are beyond our awareness and occur at such slow rates that there was no need for humans to develop that type of intelligence.  Climate change is one such example.

The subtitle is “How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.”  He focuses on many of the same issues that William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff do.  I found it delightfully surprising that a book by an author known for books on issues like emotional intelligence starts right off with a discussion of Life Cycle Assessment and industrial ecology.  (In fact, he refers to William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach in several places.)

His discussion of why “green” isn’t always as green as it seems is useful for anyone wanting to make ecologically responsible purchases.

Goleman argues that one of the best ways to increase our ecological intelligence is through full disclosure of the impact of the products we buy, the notion of radical transparency.  He cites examples such as companies being required to disclose their financial workings as examples of how that disclosure helps investors make better decisions.

He weaves together stories about the effect of synthetic chemicals on our bodies, especially on our immune systems, and discusses how inflammation and oxidative stress could be at the root of all sorts of diseases (going well beyond cancer).  Body burden, toxicology, epigenetics, and green supply chains are all covered, even if only briefly.  He weaves together these topics in a very readable, understandable fashion.

Postscript: Just checked out his website for the first time.  His latest blog post is entitled “Leading sustainability” and discusses how consumers can use resources like GoodGuide.com to make more informed choices.  And I’m encouraged by the fact that he is working with folks like Peter Senge, a management guru.

April 22, 2010

The Story of Stuff (in honor of Earth Day)

Since today is Earth Day, I thought The Story of Stuff would be an appropriate topic.  EPA is also celebrating its 40th anniversary.  More info on EPA events on its website:

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute animated film narrated by Annie Leonard about the “materials economy” (that is, the traditional process of extracting materials, manufacturing products, distribution, consumption, and disposal) and how we need to move to a sustainable economy, which is the message behind Cradle to Cradle.

Stephen Colbert said that more than 10 million people have viewed the film.  (You can see a short interview he did with Leonard on the Story of Stuff website.)

If you can’t view the video there, it’s also posted on YouTube.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLBE5QAYXp8&feature=player_embedded#! (among others)

There’s also a short excerpt from the video in her interview with Stephen Colbert (5 min 30 sec) on the Story of Stuff website that discusses what we do with our leisure time and how that helps drive the cycle.

Consumption drives the whole cycle

One thing that really struck me was a quote Leonard provided from Victor Lebow, a 20th century economist and retail analyst.  (There’s more from this quote on the Wikipedia page on Lebow.)

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats—his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies….

We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.

According to Wikipedia, “Modern authors disagree as to whether Lebow was encouraging and prescribing conspicuous consumption or grimly acknowledging and critiquing its prevalence among American consumers.”

Still, it’s pretty scary!  (Could consumerism be viewed as one big Ponzi scheme?  After all, at the rate we’re going to run out of stuff to make stuff from.)

Leonard notes that after 9/11 George W. Bush didn’t advocate grieving, he said something along the lines of “Go shopping!”  (I’ll have to go reread Brave New World.  If I remember correctly, the society in that book is based on mass consumption.)

The Story of Stuff: The Book” provides more information about the effects of the traditional extraction and production process.

More info on the effects of resource extraction

For more information on how people’s health and the environment are affected by the extraction of coal, oil, natural gas, gold, and other  resources, see the EARTHWORKS website and blog.

April 4, 2010

Are we too busybusybusy?

I reencountered a song a week or two ago that is absolutely hilarious.

“BusyBusyBusy” (sung by Kevin Kline, Song #13 in Philadelphia Chickens [1])

First verse and refrain (imagine this sung non-stop with almost every syllable being sung on an eighth note—and with no rests in each verse):

We’re
very, very busy
and we’ve got a lot to do
and we haven’t got a minute
to explain it all to you
for on SundayMondayTuesday
there are people we must see
and on WednesdayThursdayFriday
we’re as busy as can be
with our most important meetings
and our most important calls
and we have to do so many things
and post them on the walls.

Perhaps because of the song I pulled Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses[2] off the shelf it had sat on for a while and flipped through it.

A couple of chapters immediately caught my eye.  With chapter titles ranging from “A.D.D. Nation” and “24/7 Connectivity” to “The Infidelity of Busyness” and “Interrupting Ourselves” to “Overwhelmed” those alone sound what life is like nowadays.

Kabat-Zinn says that our entire society suffers from ADD and ADHD.

Learning how to refine our ability to pay attention and to sustain attention may no longer be a luxury but a lifeline back to what is most meaningful in our lives, what is most easily missed, ignored, denied, or run through so quickly that it could not possibly be noticed.

Kabat-Zinn notes that the combination of increasing processing speed and miniaturization and cheaper and cheaper electronics…

proffers a seduction in computer systems for work and home, consumer products, games, and portable electronic devices that can easily lead to outright addiction and the loss of all measure of direction as we respond willy-nilly to the increasing volumes of e-mail, voice mail, faxes, pages, and cell phone traffic coming in from all corners of the planet.

Hmm, makes me wonder whether he’s heard “BusyBusyBusy”:

we have to hurry far away
and then we hurry near
and we have to hurry everywhere
and be both there and here
and we have to send out messages
by e-mail, phone, and fax
and we’re talking every minute
and we really can’t relax
and we think there is a reason
to be running neck-and-neck
and it must be quite important
but we don’t have time to check.

I guess what I find most fascinating about this song is that while this might be what an adult’s life looks like to children at times, this is often how my life feels like to me.  Boynton (and Kevin Kline) capture that feeling perfectly.

And so Kabat-Zinn’s question resonates.  “But what about balance,” he asks, “and how do we regulate the pace of instant and ubiquitous connectivity, and the expectation of instantaneous responding?”  He notes that with our cellphones and wireless devices we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time.  “But,” he continues, “have you noticed that, in the process, we run the risk of never being in touch with ourselves?”

Saying that our primary connection to life is through experiencing our own bodies and our own senses, he says “we need moments that are not filled with anything, in which we do not jump to get in one more phone call or send one more e-mail, or plan one more event, or add to our to-do list, even if we can. Moments of reflection, of mulling, of thinking things over, of thoughtfulness.”  (Reminds me of Elaine Aron’s advice to Highly Sensitive Persons about what is needed to avoid becoming overwhelmed.  Everyone needs downtime.  Unfortunately with the world becoming increasingly frenetic, it seems that we are all less likely to get it and indeed burn ourselves out.)

Kabat-Zinn asks:

With all this talk of connectivity, what about connectivity to ourselves?  Are we becoming so connected to everybody else that we are never where we actually are?

As noted in “BusyBusyBusy”…

THEN
we have to hurry to the south
and then we hurry north
and we’re talking every minute
as we hurry back and forth
and we have to hurry to the east
and then we hurry west
and we’re talking every minute
and we don’t have time to rest
and we have to do it faster
or it never will be done
and we have no time for listening
or anything that’s fun.

In starting to read Coming to Our Senses I’ve realized how far I have to go.  (So is that why I’m sitting here at this computer typing another blog post? Ah, irony.)

References:
1. Philadelphia Chickens. [Book and CD] Music by Sandra Boynton & Michael Ford. Lyrics and Drawings by Sandra Boynton. New York: Workman Publishing, c2002.

One of the interesting things about this book and CD is that among the singers and performers were the Bacon Brothers (one of whom is, yes, Kevin Bacon), Meryl Streep, Scott Bakula, and the late Natasha Richardson.  If you have young kids (or nieces or nephews) it would make a great gift.  (I have not checked to see if “BusyBusyBusy” is available for listening anywhere on the Web, but perhaps you can find it somewhere.)

Note: A portion of the proceeds from the book goes to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation on behalf of all the artists who performed on the album.

2. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion, c2005.

March 13, 2010

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

Continuation of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1), book by McDonough and Braungart.

One of the themes of Cradle to Cradle is that in nature there is no such thing is waste.  In their words,”Waste equals food.”  They note that ecosystems truly recycle materials.  (They seem particularly fond of cherry trees and ant colonies as examples of how nature operates.)

In contrast, what society calls recycling, they call “downcycling” since in almost all cases, the “new” product recreated from the old is of lower quality each pass through the recycling stream.

In Chapter One, “A Question of Design,” McDonough & Braungart describe the use the example of the Titanic as a symbol of how we perceive technology and how it is a metaphor for the industrial infrastructure on which our society is built.

In what I found an intriguing perspective on the Industrial Revolution and the infrastructure produced by it, McDonough & Braungart ask you as the reader to imagine being given the assignment of retrospectively designing the Industrial Revolution—with the following requirements for the system:

That it:

  • put billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  • produce some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations
  • result in gigantic amounts of waste
  • put valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • require thousands of complex regulations—not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly
  • measure productivity by how few people are working
  • create prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them
  • erode the diversity of species and cultural practices

Intentional or not, that’s what we’re doing.  Not wanting this to be taken out of context, I should note that McDonough and Braungart do discuss how this whole system developed.  I’ll cover that in the next part.  (Wow, I’ve managed to get through the first two pages of Chapter One.  ;-)  )

Links to these posts, as well as posts from other blogs, will be added to the Cradle to Cradle page.

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