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It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

R.E.M. concludes "It's the End Of the World As We Know It" with the memorable refrain.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...fine...

But in the background, a voice repeats:

It's time I had some time alone.

Probably most of us have felt overwhelmed at some point by the barrage that is contemporary Internet and media culture, a barrage that shows up in numerous remixes for End of the World. But perhaps we just need some time alone—some time to think?

In this collection, we feature several takes on the potential impact of the 'media/Internet barrage'. Nicholas Carr's deliberately provocative essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" asks whether the shallow trolling for information that characterizes, among other things, the simple Google search has the effect of diminishing our capacity for, or interest in, sustained critical thought. Links at the end of the resource point to some of the vigorous and often skeptical discussion his argument has raised. Is he simply being an alarmist? Discussion linked at the end of the resource point to contrary viewpoints.

Others in this collection, such as Linda Stone and Maggie Jackson, ask similar questions but frame them in distinct ways around a focus on the skill or capacity for 'attention'. Paying attention to attention is a 21st-century teaching priority for Howard Rheingold who uses vlogs to share some of his experiments with teaching for and about attention in his classes. Without raising Carr's alarm about the malleability of the human brain, they point to social practices that accommodate attention and interruption in our lives.

All the thinkers collected here, including the critics of Internet culture, are careful to say "We are not Luddites." But their protests mostly remind us that here and there they do sound that way. Perhaps it is because one still encounters so much resistance to digital technologies in education that the hackles are always up. But as Linda Stone says in her talk, this new world—with all its advantages and challenges—just is. At various points in history, humans have experienced socio/technical changes as dramatic as those we are experiencing now and have adapted.As David Theo Goldberg argues in his very smart post on DML Central titled "If technology is making us stupid, it's not technology's fault,"

Unlike television, and perhaps more like automobiles, computers are far from passive consumptive technologies. They enable, if not encourage, interactive engagement, creativity, and participatory interaction with others. The interaction can assume various forms, not all of which are productive. Yet like the appealing impacts of both television and automobile access for youth, the productive and creative capacities of computing technology for ordinary users are staggering. The question then is not the false dilemma between unqualified good and evil, but how best to enable the productive learning possibilities of new digital technologies.

But nonetheless, we recognize the concern and even fear that some experience as they think about the potential impact of such a pervasive change in culture. Is an entirely new and different generation of youth being created through digital media? That question led us to include a reference to Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction novel Childhood's End. An intriguing novel from the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a novel that some students may enjoy. Childhood's End says, yes, it is the end of the world as we know it, but we should still feel fine.

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Comments

jeabenne's picture

I am interested in the way we discuss neurology and other brain sciences as it relates to teaching, writing, and civic life. I call this "brain scan rhetoric." fMRI images of the brain are so persuasive and powerful to us, and the ability to see something going on in the brain takes the very old and very human concern about technology shaping or changing us to another level. I mean, on one hand, this question of technology making us stupid, or changing our brains into "ADHD brains" is one that goes back quite a long way. What does it mean to be human? What is technology? Lately in our culture we are obsessed and scared about the idea that technology can somehow change our brains in some literal way, and this is usually linked to some study that observed something in the brain on a brain scan, but always it seems this is framed in some negative way. I am not a philosopher of technology, but I think it is important to flesh out how we think about technology as teachers, since that will shape how we implement it in the classroom. If we are scared that technology is changing our brains, will be be able to really provide our students full access to it? To teach them how to use it to explore and create?
I think first we need to remember that no matter how powerful images of brain scans are, and the arguments that are made in popular forums about them, that we still do not have enough information about whether or not these technologies are actually changing our brains, and even what those changes might mean. I think we should also remember that the same issues and questions about these matters go back to our same, and very human, concerns about what it means to be human and what technology really is.
I think a good place to start is to decide for ourselves in what ways technology is a tool in the classroom, and in what ways it is a collaborator.
When technology is a tool, it is good for some things and not for others. You pick the tool not because it is lying around, but because it is able to help you do the job you want to do. There may be other tools that can do the same job, just in different ways. I think we should decide in this situation, is technology the right tool for this job? Are there other tools available that we can use for this job? Can we use more than one tool, and explore together how one tool shaped the product/process and what was learned using one tool over the other. Using pen and paper to draw a map, then using some software or Google maps to make a map, would not only allow students to explore different elements that go into mapmaking and different processes, but an opportunity for teachers to help students think critically about their use of tools and engagement with them. And I guess by "critically" I mean "Self reflexive."
But other times technology is a collaborator, and this is great. We can see technology, in some situations, as an equal partner that shapes our work and learning process, and so us, in ways that a tool, as an extension of our will, cannot. And I do not think this is creepy or scary. We should explore the ways that technology can be our collaborator, and think about the ways we feel it is shaping us. We then have the opportunity to resist shaping we find problematic, or engage in order to produce that shaping. I feel this is more important in a classroom that simply worrying about it changing us generally.
I think we should also try to remember that arguments about how technology is shaping us are usually based on an idea of a homogenous, even ideal, construct of the human body and mind that technology is "warping." Let us remember that there are varied bodies and minds, different and diverse ways of thinking and being, and that technology can be empowering for disabled and diverse individuals in ways that challenge these assumptions about technology "warping" us or making us "stupid" and in ways that challenge our assumptions that technology can "ameliorate" disabilities. These ways of engaging with technology are a  good place to look for answers to these questions as well.
Is Google making us stupid? I have heard this argument before, that Google is like our memory now, and that our capacity for sustained attention or thought has dwindled. What if the interwebs suddenly disappeared? would we all be the poor Eloi with their crumbling books, at the behest of the evil Morlocks? Or are we the Eloi now, being fed only certain information by the powerful Morlocks?
Perhaps in some ways we over-depend on Google. I do think that it is important to explore the ways in which the Google search bar is a tool for a certain job, and how it is a good tool for some jobs and  not for others, and to show it alongside other kinds of tools. I found in First Year Composition that many students did not know how to look up a book in the library and use a call number to locate it physically. So I taught them how to do that, and as we searched for books and discussed call numbers, we also did Google searches, and asked and discussed critical questions about each tool and what was happening, how each one revealed different sources, entailed different sort of ways of asking questions and using information, etc.  But I did not ever think my students were "stupid" for not knowing how to find a call number or use one. And, I had to challenge my own assumptions as a teacher by arguing to them why that was even important to know.
But, in some ways I think Google search is a collaborator. Sometimes people don't quite know the question they want to ask. Google can be a great way to help hone our questions, using a series of searches to see how what we ask shapes the results of the search. And Google can be a bit more democratic because it requires less technical knowledge than a database at a library. More importantly, using Google search connects us to people just like us, and they enable us to have great discussions. In this instance, a simple over-reliance on one technology became a fruitful classroom exploration and discussion that allowed both me and my students to lay out our tacit knowledge, examine our assumptions and make thoughtful decisions about these technologies and what they mean and how to use them in certain situations
So is the problem that Google search is making us stupid, or we are not being as actively reflective and critical of our engagement with it? I prefer the latter, because it offers teaching and learning moments the former does not. What do you think?
 
 

BartMiller's picture

My point of view is that technology should be doing the 'heavy lifting' in terms of remembering both facts and connections, freeing us to focus our efforts on conceptual, organizational, and creative thinking. Obviously, that isn't necessarily how most people use tools like google search, but that's the point of view I try to take and teach.

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl's picture
Collected by Elyse Eidman-Aadahl
on Jul 13 2010

Resources in this collection

So, IS Google Making Us Stupid?
Paying Attention to Attention
Maggie Jackson on Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
Linda Stone on Continuous Partial Attention
Arthur C. Clarke and Childhood's End