This week we conclude the discussion of Mind Change.
Filed under Class sessions
In her chapter entitled the Something about Surfing, Greenfield discusses how access to the internet has limited our capabilities and decreased our potential for working memory, and covers all the negative aspects of this increasingly online culture (pages 203-207).
I would like to push back against this idea. This has been my main issue with the book so far: it seems like an alarmist piece about how computers are ruining the minds of children, presenting dubious claims linking the advent of the internet to everything from aggression to autism. While I do agree with some of Greenfield’s ideas, I think that presenting the facts in this manner is irresponsible and would give less informed people the wrong impression.
For instance with respect to surfing the Internet here, she says that the researching of the question is more important than the actual answer, and Google is taking that away from us (page 207). While this is accurate in some cases, where would the advantage be in scanning through pages and pages of physics textbooks just to find an equation linking kinetic energy to momentum? Wouldn’t it be better to just Google the equation so as to avoid wasting time on that and move on to the more interesting applications of that equation?
Obviously this is a cherry-picked example, and it is not always this simple, but my point here is that Greenfield tends to present the negatives without discussing the positives, and that is not the best way to write.
Technology and its effects on the mind do not necessarily have to be all bad. I think Greenfield knows and acknowledges this, though her arguments at times show some bias toward illustrating the highly negative impacts of technology on the mind. It is easy to criticize and nit-pick at her biased and sometimes weak arguments, but regardless of a reader’s opinion about Greenfield’s writing style or feeling that there are some loose ends in some of her arguments, I think Greenfield very successfully portrays an underlying message that we should all walk away from this book with at the very minimum: we should become more conscious and aware about our direction of technology use as a society and as individuals. Greenfield gives a resonating warning: “in today’s digital culture, with its emphasis on computation, there’s a danger that growing numbers of us are taking the more straightforward path and thinking increasingly like a computer… and adapting to, its algorithmic mode of functioning”(234). I see this as a simple request to think about how we think, and how to preserve creative and original thought in our future society of minds. Bringing up George Orwell’s 1984 put this further into perspective. Orwell presents a society in which there is a “world of surveillance and manipulation of thought.”(261). Though we are not yet near the level of this mindlessness, just thinking about the parallels of this type of society with the future of our thinking is indisputably important to at least think about.
On page 236 of Mind Change, Greenfield finally suggests some positive effects to our attachment to modern technology writing, “screen culture is developing minds that are better adapted to greater complexity and have a greater proficiency at multitasking”. This was interesting to me as I always felt she was approaching the issue at hand from a negative, fear mongering perspective. Yet, what I have issue with was she wrote further down the page saying that this new computational ability humans have won’t help us in writing novels like War and Peace or parsing the meaning of life. The way I interpreted this claim is that she is saying that computational intelligence is futile in facilitating abstract forms of thought that is necessary for the creation of art, literature, and philosophy. I disagree.
Artificial intelligence is still in its early stages of development, yet we have seen astonishing results. (1) shows how researchers used a supercomputer to compose a piece of beautiful classical music in less than a second. (2) shows how neural networks were used to create beautiful images reminiscent of famous surrealist and impressionist paintings. Greenfield somehow suggests that computational thinking does not aid us in abstract thought, I believe these examples show it can. This is only the beginning of a new revolution and I think we will slowly break the paradigm that art and computation do not go hand in hand.
Throughout Chapter 16, Susan Greenfield derides the use of engines such as Google and Wikipedia as harmful to the brain—we no longer “have to make costly efforts to find the things we want,” which results in reading in a constant state of “fast searching” (204). She paints online intellectual endeavors as near-impossible.
In passing, though, Greenfield mentioned the existence of formal education sites such as Khan Academy in one paragraph, brushing them off as “casual” (202). These resources, termed “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses), are changing the face of higher education, and it is improper to dismiss them so easily.
As free, credit-less, and collaborative learning resources, organizations such as Coursera are redefining what it means to “take a class.” The peer-to-peer nature of the learning environment (through forums, chats, and webcam sessions with teaching assistants), along with the dynamic course pace (usually within 10-15 videos, able to be watched whenever the student desires), is stripping away the typically rigid classroom environment and allowing students to learn across any disciplines of interest in the timeframes that work for them.
Especially as tuition debt issues continue to rise for college students, and with no guaranteed job after school, the value of MOOCs is calling into question the true value of a university degree. If MOOCs continue to develop and address the advantages that remain in a physical classroom environment over the online experience, private university culture could lose its hold on our society.
In chapter 16, Susan Greenfield discusses how having information at our fingertips affects our learning. She mentions how Google searching nowadays depends on fast evaluations rather than detailed scrutiny, but that even though digital natives can find information quickly, they are not as confident with the knowledge (216). She goes on to talk about the differences between the previous world (full of questions and poor on answers) and the current world (poor on questions and too many answers). As she mentioned things like Khan Academy, I couldn’t help but wonder how the idea of having information readily available to (certain) students impacts learning and how teachers should teach. I don’t get the impression that Greenfield thinks that having all this information available to us is absolutely terrible. Rather, I believe she’s posing the question of – knowing this, how should we be teaching? how should technology be implemented into the classroom? If surfing the web is so much of an end in itself, can it ever generate more curiosity? I think it can, because we can use all the answers retrieved as a springboard for new questions/discussions. I do think that our new version of learning will put more responsibility on students. Educators should scaffold and now teach how to find information that is reliable online. This is inspiring because now students aren’t restricted to what teachers want to teach, thus having ownership over their learning. That being said, it is also a matter of access, which can be harmful.
I was a bit surprised by the lack of actionable suggestions that Greenfield left us with in her conclusion. The author’s overall message seemed to be that we need to spread awareness about the potential downsides of technology use, yet she acknowledges in the first chapter that humans rarely accept “common sense” over more “enjoyable possibilities” (4). Similarly, Greenfield’s suggestion that “the invention of completely novel software that…offset[s] any possible deficiencies” that would lead to the bad parts of mind change seem directly counter to the acknowledged trend of software programs (specifically away from the advantages of anonymity) brought up in the chapters on social networking. Even additional scientific research seems potentially ineffective. If we again compare mind change to global warming, we would soon realize that, even though the latter has gained broad scientific support, steps to mitigate it have been small due to the popularity of activities that would have to be curtailed.
Though Greenfield’s goal may have only been to inform the public, the lack of a clear way forward leaves me with many questions unanswered. I think it would be more interesting had she had presented potentially interesting pathways or ideas to explore, like legislation to reduce technology use in classrooms for students of certain age ranges or potential routines that would allow us enough screen down time. Otherwise, even though I am relatively convinced by Greenfield’s overall case, I feel our society as a whole is unlikely to take action to avoid its negative outcomes.
On page 229 Greenfield discusses the Sesame Street Effect. According to Greenfield the Sesame Street Effect is “an innovation that held great promise for allowing poorer children to catch up with more affluent children educationally actually widens the education gap[.]”
This was incongruent with my prior knowledge of Sesame Street. I believed that Sesame Street is considered an effective educational tool precisely because it reached a broad audience of children across the economic spectrum. After doing some research, I managed to track down only two papers that supported her claim about the “Sesame Street Effect.” Her claim was unreferenced, so it is possible that she referred to another, obscure, source.
The supporting papers were published by Herbert Sprigle in the early 1970s, and both papers refer to the same set of experiments. Sprigle’s experiments, however, do not directly support Greenfield’s claim that Sesame Street “actually widens the education gap.” That claim is supported by Sprigle, however, but through his re-interpretation of data from a paper that concluded Sesame Street reduced the gap.
I object to Sprigle’s conclusion (from his data) because he only succeeds in proving that his control classroom, which used specialized game-based lessons, was more effective than the class using Sesame Street. Game based lessons are known to be extremely effective (for reasons discussed briefly in Mind Change) and could skew the control data to the extent that it no longer represents traditional classrooms.
Furthermore, a sample size of 1 classroom fails to account for the scope of Sesame Street, which is intended to be accessible across the entire country. Lastly, in Sprigle’s study he had teachers replace traditional active instruction with passive instruction through watching Sesame Street.
I believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding as to the intended role Sesame Street in education. Digital technologies, like the iPad, and Sesame Street are intended to supplement, not replace traditional classrooms. Greenfield’s tone implies that Sesame Street widens the education gap between socioeconomic classes through some negative effect, while the correct conclusion (from the small subset of data) would be that by watching Sesame Street, children from high socioeconomic classes benefit more than children from lower socioeconomic classes according to tangible academic interests.
In Chapter 17, Greenfield delves into the question of how technology is changing the medium through which information is presented, and how that changes the way we consume said information. She writes about how ineffectively people learn from screens versus paper mediums, as well as speaks briefly about how videotaping lectures has led to a decline of lecture attendance and a decrease in performance, especially when learning more complicated material (227-228).
Although one may lack the self control to watch a lecture without simultaneously checking Facebook or Twitter, Greenfield fails to mention technology’s ability to connect world and open up opportunities for people to learn on their own time, at their own pace, in their own place through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These MOOCs, offered for free through sites like Coursera and EdX allow students from all over the world to learn at their own place. Some criticisms are that MOOCs have difficulty retaining students and getting users to complete the course, perhaps because the student is self paced and doesn’t have the structure of a university (1).
It’s important to note that regardless of the rates of completion, the opening of curriculum and learning to the world is an astonishing, remarkable feat. If deliberate in forming communities within these MOOCs, MOOCs could very possibly create the networked interactivity referenced in page 225, therefore aiding learning. MOOCs also encourage opening and sharing content between teachers and universities, which is also beneficial to educators and the students they teach (2).
Greenfield makes some interesting connections to creativity as a skill at the end of the chapter Thinking Differently. Though she does not say so explicitly, it seems her argument is that one implication of mind change is the loss of creativity due to factors like the Google effect and the decreasing popularity of books. I find most of the claims made at the end of this chapter to be highly speculative, whether Greenfield intended so or not. I do agree with the idea that creativity must involve the dissociation of existing conceptual connections and the creation of novel associations. However, I disagree that the new association and what it produces must be meaningful in order to be creative. Twenty minutes of meaningless doodling, I believe, will exercise my creativity just as much, if not more, than deliberative sketching.
The unstated relevance of this section, I assume, is that certain technologies are diminishing the creativity of their users, and that a reduction of creativity in general will have negative consequences. I agree with the latter claim, but not the former. I don’t need to make too strong of a claim for this because Greenfield herself does not make a direct claim for me to counter. I think it should suffice to say that, while these technologies facilitate lots of passive consumption, they also objectively open new avenues for exercising creativity. Free tools like GIMP and Inkscape, and programs like iMovie, are just several examples.
At long last, it was good to read Greenfield’s goals for the book – her call to action. In the final pages of the book, she calls for more data and more perspectives, and alludes to the complex nature of the situation at hand. Her analogy to Climate Change standing strong, stands at a fork in the road because of the implications that the future depends on what we want, as opposed to the climate issue, where the consequences are somewhat clear.
It is not until the very end of the book that she starts conveying enthusiasm for the potential of these technologies for the better, and she does so only after laying out the classical visions of a dystopian future as expressed by Orwell and Huxley.
I can’t help but think about Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind, in which he touches on the same issues, but phrased as a manual for having an efficient mind, rather a discourse on how bad these technologies can be for you. Levitin takes the approach that we can actually become far more productive, and far happier, and far more self-actualized, if we learn how to deal with these technologies appropriately.
In Chapter 17, Greenfield argues that the promulgation of screens “might now be driving our thought processes in an unprecedented direction” [p215]. Greenfield sets out to explain the importance of physical paper books (as compared to their electronic versions), citing well regarded papers indicating e-reading decreases comprehension, increases eye strain, and neuters learning in sixth graders.
She then dives deeper into the effects of screens on learning, pointing out that a mix of commercial interests, openness to unproven technology solutions in the education space, and aesthetic appeal result in education systems around the world adopting screens as a supplementary learning tool. She uses the fact that many workers of the tech industry in the bay area opt to send their offspring to schools that actively opt out of technology in the learning environment as evidence of “a backlash against the premature adoption of technology in classrooms” [p231], concluding that “perhaps a general skepticism about their educational benefits is warranted.” [p232]
One aspect left unexplored by Greenfield is that of Virtual Reality. A recent meta-analysis  of 69 studies in virtual reality-based instruction found that with games, simulations and virtual worlds the improvement learning outcome gains was statistically significant. Unlike iPads and eBooks, which are commonly used as ways to replace traditional learning materials (for example, textbooks), new developments in technology allow devices to be used in ways that provide access to a totally different way of learning to the student.
 Merchant, Zahira, et al. “Effectiveness of virtual reality-based instruction on students’ learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education: A meta-analysis.” Computers & Education 70 (2014): 29-40.
I have a number of concerns about what Greenfield has said in “The something about surfing” chapter of her book. To save on space, I shall omit my summary of her points. Firstly, she suggests that because now there is no “journey” to finding answers and joining the dots, that I imagine as a few strongly linked neurons, we will have brains that are “saturation bombed”. This is a risky statement to make and I wonder if instead, the internet enables the brain to make far more connections between information and “neurons” due to the supposed barrage of content that we see and also because there is precisely no time-wasting “journey” to find information.
Secondly, she suggests the future scenario where we become completely reliant on external information that conversations are stuttered with long pauses as we look things up. Surely the opposite is also possible – wherein when meeting someone, we find far more in common to converse about, because though we did not grow up reading the same books and having the same classes – we share a common source of information – the internet. I recall Christian mentioned in class that though he was from Paraguay and I was from the UK, we bonded over our shared love of 9Gag when we first met.
Whilst I agree that the way in which our brain handles internet content differently, I believe that it is for the better and rather than throwing exaggerated scenarios into the argument, more research is needed.
I’m sympathetic to Greenfield’s claim that internet surfing encourages a preference for reading facts over asking the right questions (207). Gary Small’s UCLA study was particularly striking; researchers found “[the] new brain patterns indicated a switch in strategy from actually reading what was displayed to fast searching, in turn suggesting that success in a Google search depends not on detailed scrutiny or in-depth reflection but instead on fast evaluations at face value” (205). This is tough to read because it makes immediate intuitive sense. While I usually finish physical magazine articles that I start, online I often get distracted by links early in an article, and I often finish less than half the article.
The immense amount of material available online allows me to jump from topic to topic, learning what seems the most interesting without diving deeply into each topic. I spend hours each day browsing the internet learning interesting things, and I imagine that if I spent the same kind of time reading, say, non-fiction books, I would have a lot more depth in many topics.
But I’m not sure I want that. Surfing the internet, clicking around, seeing everything that looks remotely interesting, exposes me to an incredible breadth of information and ideas that I wouldn’t know exist without access to a giant free web of information and ideas. And when I do focus on a topic, it’s nice and learner-friendly to be able to open all the footnotes and references in one sitting. Perhaps the general trend of internet surfing is toward passive consumption, but the internet itself opens opportunities to reward curiosity in ways that books can’t.
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