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.

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.

March 12, 2010

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1)

I’ve decided to try to summarize Cradle to Cradle over a series of several posts.  (And I’ve created a Cradle to Cradle page where I’ll post links to my posts, as well as posts from other blogs.)

I won’t be able to do it complete justice, but I think it’s an eye-opening approach to a critical problem.  Having been published in 2002, a lot of progress has been made in the last eight years and many of the ideas are starting to be recognized as a better approach.  Green chemistry, design for the environment, pollution prevention, and sustainable design and materials management (and lots of variations on those terms and concepts) are starting to catch on as being better approaches.

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

Going beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle”

McDonough and Braungart argue that this approach to waste actually perpetuates the one-way “cradle to grave” approach of traditional manufacturing.

As co-authors of The Hannover Principles (PDF) (Wikipedia article), design guidelines for the 2000 World’s Fair that were issued at the World Urban Forum of the Earth Summit in 1992, they state that foremost among the guidelines is eliminating the concept of waste.  (For more background on related issues, see Agenda 21 documents from the Agenda 21 Global Programme of Action on Sustainable Development from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development–aka the Earth Summit.)

This book describes the steps society can take to do that, as well as why the reasons our current approach will ultimately fail.

The limits of scientific research (my term, not theirs)

Braungart notes that “science as a whole is more invested in research than in implementing strategies of change.”

The scientific community is usually paid to study problems, not solutions; indeed, finding a solution to the problem under study usually brings an end to funding for research.

That, Braungart notes, puts an odd pressure on scientists since they must, like everyone else, make a living.  Which is part of the reason we keep making products containing chemicals that we know are toxic.  We’ve been unable to think of a better approach.

Rethinking the question

Well, as they ask on the back cover of the book, “Why not challenge the belief that human industry must damage the natural world?  In fact, why not take nature itself as our model for making things?”

More on The Hannover Principles

From the Foundation for P2P Alternatives.  (I found this interesting because of this statement on the Foundation’s home page: “We study the impact of Peer to Peer technology and thought on society.”)

[Summary of] The Hannover Principles, 1992

Originally posted on the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) website (link on the Mindfully.org website no longer works)

Note: GSA is responsible for purchasing or managing many tangible assets of the U.S. government.

Copied from Mindfully.org’s Hannover Principles page (unfortunately the Mindfully.org site does not appear to have been updated recently, but it does contain links to older articles on plastics, sustainability, etc.)

Developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the Hannover Principles were among the first to comprehensively address the fundamental ideas of sustainability and the built environment, recognizing our interdependence with nature and proposing a new relationship that includes our responsibilities to protect it. The Principles encourage all of us – you, your organization, your suppliers and customers – to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and to re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity. When you make decisions in your organization, remember these essential Principles:

  • Recognize interdependence. Simply put: everything you do personally, in your organization and through your work interacts with and depends upon the natural world, at every scale, both locally and across the globe.
  • Eliminate the concept of waste. Are you considering the full, life-cycle consequences of what you create or buy?
  • Understand the limitations of design. Treat nature as a model, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled

Next installment: “Nature doesn’t have a design problem.  People do.”

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)

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