April 26, 2006
Marshall McLuhan would like this article
New technology may be changing the human brain
We need to listen to the expert warnings about the potential impact of digital communication on how people think and learn
Monday April 24, 2006
Sometimes the House of Lords throws out speeches so interesting and radical, that you simply cannot imagine them being made in the Commons. One such came this week from the neuro-biologist Susan Greenfield. She asked a question that affects all of us, yet which I have never heard discussed by mainstream politicians: is technology changing our brains?
The context is the clicking, bleeping, flashing world of screens. There has been a change in our environment that is so all-embracing and in a way so banal that we barely notice it. In just a couple of decades, we have slipped away from a culture based essentially on words to one based essentially on images, or pictures. This is probably one of the great shifts in the story of modern humans but we take it almost for granted.
There are the "icons" (a word to dwell on) of the iPod or Windows, those cute and reassuring little pictures that perform the role of Chinese ideograms rather than western culture's words. Then there are the winking corporate mini-logos, which are more familiar to children than national flags or famous authors. Just watch a teenager navigate, with thumbs or fingertips, a world of instructions, suggestions, offers and threats, scrolling through songs, adverts, film clips and software.
The brilliance of Baroness Greenfield's speech is that she wades straight into the dangers posed by this culture. A recent survey of eight-to 18-year-olds, she says, suggests they are spending 6.5 hours a day using electronic media, and multi-tasking (using different devices in parallel) is rocketing. Could this be having an impact on thinking and learning?
She begins by analysing the process of traditional book-reading, which involves following an author through a series of interconnected steps in a logical fashion. We read other narratives and compare them, and so "build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys... One might argue that this is the basis of education ... It is the building up of a personalised conceptual framework, where we can relate incoming information to what we know already. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it significance." Traditional education, she says, enables us to "turn information into knowledge."
Put like that, it is obvious where her worries lie. The flickering up and flashing away again of multimedia images do not allow those connections, and therefore the context, to build up. Instant yuk or wow factors take over. Memory, once built up in a verbal and reading culture, matters less when everything can be summoned at the touch of a button (or, soon, with voice recognition, by merely speaking). In a short attention-span world, fed with pictures, the habit of contemplation and the patient acquisition of knowledge are in retreat.
Is this, perhaps, the source of the hyperactivity and attention deficit malaise now being treated with industrial quantities of Ritalin, Prozac and other drugs to help sustain attention in the classroom? If so, what will these drugs do in turn to the brain? Greenfield points out, in some of the most chilling words heard in the Lords, that "the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to any and every event: we cannot complacently take it as an article of faith that it will remain inviolate, and that consequently human nature and ways of learning and thinking will remain consistent".
While not suggesting a revolt by mere democracies against the corporate power of the IT industries, Greenfield suggests this is an idea that should at least be investigated further. She wants more government funding for the scientists and educators trying to understand the impact of the digital-picture world on how children learn to think - surely a more important area for state-backed research than endless lifestyle or obesity surveys.
Politicians should be seriously concerned. Parliamentary democracy has depended on a citizenry prepared to think logically about policies, to remember promises and to follow arguments. Greenfield's feared world without context is therefore also a world more prone to political illogic and fad. At the memorial service last week for Lord Merlyn-Rees - a politician of integrity and decency - I was surrounded by many great political figures of the 70s and 80s. But I wondered how many of their patiently made arguments would be given house room in the exciting digital wasteland.
Over dinner tonight I was just reading Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (dinnertime is the best time to give books like this the concentration they require, I think). Anyway, historicizing things is his ballywick, and in the introduction to this edition (2003) he notes that this ahistorical disjunctive is a key characteristic of the postmodern, so while some may bemoan it, others may say this is simply a characteristic of our age.
On the other hand, I think the topic needs a great deal more debate, especially since it was an issue I took on in my dissertation, an attempt to defend (and enact) nonlinear arguments (and narratives) as a more DEEPLY CONTEXTUALIZED experience than linear argument or narrative.
That claim is still not definitively proven, but I'd hoped I opened the door to different ways to thinking about it. My basic concept was that nonlinear thinking (hypertextual, interactive, exploratory thinking) is not floating in space unconnected to anything, simply because it is absent a direct linear line.
My "slogan" for understanding this is this: "Why not get to know a subject the way a kid gets to know the woods?" with the woods being that sort of idealized play space I enjoyed as a kid, although few kids these days have the run of a neighborhood woods to build forts, climb trees, dam cricks, etc. as I did.
Anyway, I won't belabor the point here (heh, I got to in the dissertation), except to point out that nonlinear or disjunctive does not necessarily mean decontextualized, as much as it may be simply a different kind of contextualization, one where a person's own mind forms the basis for context, instead of having it handed to you, constructed by someone else in a more authoritative fashion.
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