I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 22, 2010

Resources on how your privacy online is threatened

A recent Wall Street Journal series, “Your Privacy Online: What They Know”, described the efforts by internet marketers and tracking firms to compile information on just about everyone.

Other resources

Center for Democracy and Technology

CDT’s Guide to Online Privacy

Issues:

CDT’s Deeplinks Blog covers issues ranging from Anonymity to Locational privacy to Online behavioral tracking.

Dotrights.org

Describes what information about you is gathered online and how it is used. Sponsored by ACLU of Northern California.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center – http://epic.org/

Covers a wide range of privacy issues.

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.).

March 4, 2010

Small steps

Have started reading

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer.  Workman Publishing, 2004.

Contrasts kaizen (small, comfortable steps) with innovation (a drastic process of change).  Interestingly enough, Maurer’s explanation of why small steps can actually help you accomplish more than drastic change ties in with some of Aron’s writing on Highly Sensitive Persons.

The chapters flow from “Ask small questions” to “Think small thoughts” to “Take small actions.”

Maurer says that one of the reasons drastic change often does not work is because thinking about what it would take to make such a change can cause fear, which triggers the fight-or-flight response of the amygdala.  The small steps taken in kaizen, on the other hand, do not trigger such a fear response.  So is there some sort of strong connection between the system Aron calls the “automatic pause-to-check” system and the amygdala?

I’m also intrigued by Maurer’s description of “mind sculpture” (from a book of the same name by Ian Robertson (which I will now have to track down at the library).  Mind sculpture apparently is going a step beyond visualization.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (see below) would also appear to indicate how small steps can make a big difference.

Responses to “ How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?” (Edge Question of 2010)

Included information from a couple of the answers in my previous post.  Now I only have about 170 answers to go.  :)

Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan, c2002.

A fairly basic explanation of network theory and complexity theory.  I had become aware of Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” from reading Andrew McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0 (listed below).

Buchanan explains some of the mathematics behind that, as well as the “Six Degrees of Separation,” which many people are probably aware of because of the connection with Kevin Bacon.  (If one expands that beyond movies and into books and music, many more people get drawn into his network.  More on that in another post.)

I’ve listed some other books I’ve recently finished, but following Maurer’s suggestions re small steps I’m going to stop for now and touch upon those in later posts, too.

Though I would highly recommend that everyone read Cradle to Cradle (see below) to find out what we’re doing to our environment—and ourselves and our health and our kids’ health—and why we need to stop making many of the industrial toxins we’re making and move toward a lifecycle approach to chemicals, rather than making things that just end up in landfills.

Recently read

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. Three Rivers Press, 2004.

Elaine Aron.  The Highly Sensitive Person, c1996, and The Highly Sensitive Child, c2002.

Andrew McAfee.  Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges.  Harvard Business Press, c2009.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  North Point Press, 2002.

Not so recently (but still thought-provoking)

Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Back Bay paperback edition, 2002.

Social epidemics; word of mouth; Mavens, Collectors, and Salesmen; “Ideas” (memes? viral ideas?); E-mail (discusses “immunity” to e-mail)

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!)

February 23, 2010

The Virtual Frontier

Filed under: Digital life,Internet,Metacognition — Myles Tougeau @ 1:02 am
Tags: , ,

While setting up a blog for a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., it finally dawned on me that “Hey, I could be doing this for myself, too!”

However, unlike the American frontier of the 1800’s, it seems that the virtual frontier (taken from the subtitle of a FRONTLINE special, Digital_Nation: Life on the virtual frontier) is not that far from the frenzy of “the madding crowd.”

In fact, it’s all around.  24/7 stimulation.  Of course, how different is that from all-night cable shows and radio stations that you could watch or listen to or even call in to?

I’m not sure.  What is all of this doing to us?  To our minds?  What’s happened to introspection?  To contemplation?  Can we even think anymore?  Or do we just react?

Where did all the peace and quiet go?!  (And how did I, a simple country boy, end up here?)

Blog at WordPress.com.