Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Boy, Are We Stupid.

Dumping on the next generation has become a time-honored tradition in this country. Every few years, a study comes out showing how woeful these kids are in history. And I do mean every few years – I looked into this once, and found articles on it going all the way back to about 1935. Really. I’ll write it up sometime.

Same goes for innovation. There’s always someone out there claiming the latest technology is going to lead to social and moral decay, to the dumbing down of society. And so Susan Greenfield joins their ranks, another “voice in the wilderness” warning us of the technological dysptopia to come. Only she doesn’t really seem to understand.

There are two things I always love about these arguments. One, the “accuser” in this story always picks one of the biggest websites to head their dire warnings. But it’s never actually about those specific sites. Facebook. MySpace. Google.

Two, that we were once a nation of endless geniuses. Thus, technology has changed that all, and we are all fast becoming morons. Nevermind that say, Alan Greenspan, Henry Paulson, Phil Gramm, Bernie Madoff, George W. Bush, and Dick Fuld all attended school and grew up in a pre-Google, pre-Facebook world. So what’s their excuse?

“Facebook is rewiring our brain.” Oh no! Sounds horrible! Obviously, as a neuroscientist, Susan Greenwood is well versed in the idea of neuroplasticity, which is what she bases her “theory” on. Of course the Internet rewires our brain. Essentially, according to the idea of neuroplasticity, everything does. Walking down the street. Gardening. Reading. Watching TV. Sewing. Driving. And so on and so on.

What kills me most about all of this is that she’s making an argument from authority here. “Top neuroscientist.” Well, I can’t find any scholarly research mentioned anywhere in these articles.

Ok. So I went to the databases to see what she’s published recently. The most recent was an article in New Scientist, from May of 2008, which is essentially the boiled down version of the book she’s promoting and doesn’t offer much different than the news articles. Theory of evil technology based on theory of neuroplasticity. No studies whatsoever. Ok. So Moving on.

Back a little further. April 2006, from The Guardian.
“Now imagine there is no robust conceptual framework. You are sitting in front of a multimedia presentation where you are unable, because you have not had the experience of many different intellectual journeys, to evaluate what is flashing up on the screen. The most immediate reaction would be to place a premium on the most obvious feature, the immediate sensory content, the "yuk" and "wow" factor.
You would be having an experience rather than learning. The sounds and sights of a fast-moving multimedia presentation displace any time for reflection, or any idiosyncratic or imaginative connections we might make as we turn the pages, and then stare at a wall to reflect upon them.”
I really can’t get past the fact that she doesn’t seem to display any understanding of just how various the ways are that people use the Internet and technology.

And further back, an article from the New Statesmen, June 2005.
If this current generation is living in an avalanche of answer-rich, question-poor inputs, and if we dons are faced with everyone being "above average", faultless, yet lacking curiosity, then we are heading towards a rather bizarre disconnect between what is taught and what we need and value.
Surely we should be determining how we are going to bring back a scenario where young people have the confidence to risk being wrong. They should be taught in an environment where there is no problem in seeming stupid, and asking endless questions, and where they have time to venture down intellectual cul-de-sacs, to explore unlikely possibilities, to weigh up alternatives and, above all, to work out for themselves a framework within which they view the world.
I think what’s most fascinating about this is that she completely misses that the Internet and technology helps open up that second scenario.

I have not read any of her books, not the latest on this issue nor the first.  I’ll watch out for them though, even though I'm not expecting much substance. She's been banging this drum for some time, it seems

I actually do think that there should be extensive research into the effects of technology on our brains.  But this type of sensational fear-mongering drives me up a wall.  It's about selling books and getting site hits.  But I wonder about it as well.

Sometimes, I think of it in the grand scheme of things.  The idea of neuroplasticity as it relates to evolution.  It's actually incredible to think about - but the history of humankind is the story of an evolving brain, to the use of tools and the evolution of language, and our increased reliance on abstract thought.  The Great Leap Forward - Behavioral modernity.  Even with serious research, perhaps only time will tell if our brains are once again adapting to our environment.  

Well.  I'll leave you with this.


***Cross posted at TPM Cafe.***

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