I am not a gadget

Jaron Lanier, author of “You are not a gadget”, is very well-informed about what he is writing about, which is some of the social consequences of the internet, and some of the implicit ideologies that are built into the internet as we are living with it today. Lanier was one of the early minds behind virtual reality and has helped create a lot of the technology that shapes how we live and how we think. In his book, “You are not a gadget” (Knopf NY 2010) he offers some reflections on this technology, recent trends and coming trends, and the relationship of the technology to society.

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Thoughts on Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

After a couple of recommendations from a couple of different directions, I read Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains”. It combines neuroplasticity research (which I read about in Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself”) with ideas about a literary, print-based culture versus an electronic media-based culture. The book was mentioned in Tapscott & Williams’s “Macrowikinomics” and in Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class”. Hedges also criticizes electronic media based culture and laments the death of print-based culture in his “Empire of Illusion”.

The basic argument of “The Shallows” is that the web is good for associating bits of information but print was good for deep reading, thinking, and contemplation. My friend Michael Albert focused on the attention span aspect of the argument in a recent blog post on ZNet: that attention spans decrease as online information flow increases.

Here’s a hopeful aspect: neuroplasticity goes both ways. If lots of internet use can reprogram us to lose our attention spans, practice thinking and contemplating can reprogram us to be reflective and thoughtful.

The other point that I’ve been thinking about is where Carr quotes Neil Postman, a very interesting writer on technology and society. On pg.151-2, Carr quotes Postman’s book “Technopoly”, who in turn was describing the key elements of scientific management. The six assumptions of Taylorism, or scientific management, as Postman writes – quoted in Carr:

“that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

Carr uses this quote in a discussion about Google’s philosophy, and corrects the sixth assumption for the case of Google: “Google doesn’t believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms”.

This does take me back to Douglas Hubbard, who I mentioned in my post about Norberto Bobbio and democracy. Hubbard’s business book “How to Measure Anything”, is, if anything, an argument for good measurement and not bad measurement. His more recent book called “The Failure of Risk Management”, is even more explicitly a plea for using techniques that have some rigor and justification as opposed to subjective illusions of measurement and quantification.

What I wonder about though is, does even good measurement have possibly perverse effects? Does even good measurement crowd out important ways of thinking, like ethical reasoning or historical comparison? I am genuinely not sure about this point. Another question – if it comes to social conflict, can networked thinkers beat deep thinkers, or does it go the other way?

Teaching: Jacques Ranciere and Sugata Mitra

A few months ago I was blown away by Sugata Mitra’s TED talk on child-driven education. Mitra’s thesis is that children can teach themselves. What they need is not teachers who know how to do what they are trying to learn, but materials, problems, one another (groups), and perhaps encouragement. Mitra put computers out and watched what children did with them. Groups of children would gather around the computer and teach themselves how to use them. Their “performance” teaching themselves ended up to be as good or better than those with teachers. What Mitra introduced in this talk that wasn’t in the previous TED Talk by him (also very good) is the “granny cloud”. These “grannies” just expressed enthusiasm and interest in what the students were doing, no evaluation, and it improved student learning immensely.

The other day I was at a friend’s house and saw a book by Jacques Ranciere called “The Ignorant Schoolmaster”. Ranciere tells the story of the 19th century version of Sugata Mitra, someone named Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot managed to teach a group of Flemish students to write a series of things in French, although he knew no Flemish and they knew no French (similar to Mitra at the end of the talk writing english questions on a blackboard with Italian students, who answered his questions reasonably quickly). Jacotot showed that you don’t need to know, to teach. What you need to do to teach is set a problem for a student so that the student must use their own intelligence to solve. There was no need for additional explanation of texts – the text was the explanation, there’s no need for a teacher to explain it. But current methods of teaching don’t serve learning or students, is Ranciere’s point – they serve the system, and the teachers. “Universal teaching”, in which students teach themselves, isn’t useful to the system, and won’t ever be adopted by it, because it has totally different objectives than the current system.

Another friend passed me a book by Carol Dweck called “Self Theories”, which contrasts an “incremental” theory of intelligence (that you can get smarter by working) versus an “entity” theory of intelligence (that you have a certain amount of a thing called intelligence and it won’t change). If you believe in the entity theory, your self-image will be fragile and you will avoid problems that might make you look or feel unintelligent – difficulty will elicit a “helpless response” from you. If you hold to the incremental theory, you will be persistent in the face of difficulty and show a “mastery-oriented” response to problems. Teachers and parents can generate “mastery-oriented”, “incremental” theories and responses by ensuring to never praise or punish “intelligence”, but always offer feedback on strategies. If a student is unsuccessful at a problem, offer another strategy. If a student is successful, praise the strategy and offer another challenge. If a student solves something easily, apologize for not offering a sufficient challenge and offer the next challenge. This is how to create mastery.

A long time ago someone (a writer), commenting on my lack of perfectionism in my writing, told me I wasn’t a writer, but a teacher who used writing. I’ve been thinking recently about what teaching (or, indeed, writing) is for. I have recently tried to introduce some of these ideas (problem-based, groups-based, open-ended problems, strategy-based feedback) in class, and I am finding that the pressure from the system – student anxiety about grades, the fact that the structural relationship is one where they are paying to be evaluated – works against these potentials. I might be tempted to conclude that real learning has to take place outside of class. The trouble is that what’s outside of class is more pressure – to work outside of school to pay for school and the student debt and the rent, to try to make arrangements and plans for a future that is so uncertain. It makes me think that the real problems of the world aren’t a lack of good answers, but the impossibility of implementing them. As in: we know how people learn, but we can’t create a situation where they can. We know how to solve the energy (or economic or climate or environmental or food or health) crisis, but we can’t do what it takes to make it happen.

Bruce Levine on Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic

I’m reading Bruce Levine’s “Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic”. The story of how I got the book is interesting. I was reading some psychology books a while back (Alfie Kohn, Alice Miller) and a reader of this blog suggested that no psychology reading list would be complete without Levine’s “Commonsense Rebellion”. I read it, and agreed totally. Then the other day I was reading Z Magazine and noticed a book review written by Bruce Levine, and at the bottom of that it mentioned “Surviving”. So, here I am, reading the book.

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