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    Entries in Internet (3)


    Social Media (new series)

    A recent blog post by one of my favourite writers, Alexandra Samuel and an article in the New York Times about some research which suggests that teenagers who use the Internet at home are less likely to have good grades at school has motivated me to start a new series on Social Media.

    Samuel quotes Matthew Gallion who bemoans the fact that social media are about seeking approval from friends rather than about communicating ideas and emotions. The latter is only possible within the real context of coffee houses and homes. In the New York times article two studies are quoted both of which use relatively small samples to make enormous claims. The researchers brought computers into households with teenagers and discovered that the teenager's school grades went down because of the computer's presence in the household. The second small study found a similar trend in Virginia among poorer households.
    Aside from the obvious dangers of taking small studies which inevitably trend in the direction that researchers assume from the start, there is the further and much more serious issue of generalizing to teenagers as a whole. The metaphor that underlies this approach is that the Internet and especially social media are by definition, distractions. But, distractions from what? 
    A closer look at the studies mentioned in the Times reveals that little is said about the quality of the educational institutions that the teenagers were attending. The studies abstract the reality of schooling from the home and vice-versa. How about this argument? The schools the teenagers were attending in Romania and Virginia were so bad that they needed the distractions of social media to engage in the interpersonal learning experiences that the schools denied. I am being facetious here, but this constant thematic of social media as destroyers of human capacity and learning, as an interruption to processes that are otherwise not only better, but more substantive belies the fact that social media are a disruptive force and intentionally so.
    Matthew Gallion has the same problem in his analysis of the authenticity of the coffee house as a place of communications and interchange. Come on. There is no way of generalizing here. Most "real" conversations happen to be pretty inauthentic to begin with and there is not a special utopian place where conversations break down the conventional barriers that people put up to exchanging real emotions and feelings with each other. 
    The problem with these articles and analyses is that the Internet and by extension social media come to represent the opposite of some idealized space that we can no longer access. This is bad social science and a terrible use of anecdotal evidence to make broad claims that have little to do with the realities of modern day communications. 
    Communications among people, both interpersonal and social are always fraught with errors, blockages and challenges. There would be little need to communicate if we weren't constantly trying to overcome differences in understanding and perspective. Social media add another potential layer to misunderstanding and understanding — another layer to what we do everyday, which is converse with our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.
    The issues surrounding learning are equally complex. Schools are not necessarily places of learning and are not the ideal environment versus some baser realities in the communities and households we inhabit. As with everything, some schools and some classes in those schools work and others don't. Some aspects of social media work to increase communications among people and others don't.
    Distractions are real and always have been. Some teenagers prefer to ride their bicycles instead of studying history. Perhaps it is time to seek new metaphors and models to explain what is happening today. Yes, the Internet disrupts. And yes, all new forms of communications historically have disrupted the social order of their time. 
    Ironically, social media might well be the best opportunity we have had in decades to open up learning to many new modalities and to harness the energy of conversation for the public good.  



    A Shallow Argument: Nicholas Carr and the Internet

    Among its many errors of logic and argument, Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains suggests that the plasticity of the brain — its malleability, means that the generation now heavily involved with, and indebted to the Internet, is having its brains rewired. Aside from the obvious problems in talking about the brain as an electrical system, the supposed plasticity of the human brain is far from being proven although it is in an important area of research in the neurosciences. It is true that the brain is far more capable of adaptation than previously thought, and there is evidence to suggest that learning at all stages of life contributes to a "healthy" brain. However to draw the conclusion, as Carr does, that we are in the midst of a crisis which is redrawing the boundaries of how people think (and most importantly what they do with their thoughts) is alarmist and counter productive.

    Carr's panic at what is happening to "us" — distracted multitaskers who no longer read or experience the world with any depth or rigour — perpetuates the century's old hysteria about the effects of new technologies on humans. Stephen Pinker, who actually does research in the neurosciences skewers the simplicity and reductiveness of people like Carr in a recent New York Times article. He says, "Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill, the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience."

    Of even greater interest is Carr's transformation of Darwin's theories of evolution into claims about the speed with which the Internet is altering human biology. This fast forward approach to human evolution has its attractions. After all, humans were not around to witness millions of years of evolution, so it is easy to draw simplistic solutions to explain shifts in human activities and modes of thinking.

    Carr's moral panic (taken up and reproduced by hundreds of journalists in newspapers and blogs seemingly desperate for some explanation as to why they are hooked to a medium they haven't thought about with enough depth and historical range) suggests that evolution is like Lego blocks. Once you put a few blocks into place, you have a structure, and once you have a structure, presto! you have evolved!

    Carr's argument is just a variation on intelligent design. Replace god with the Internet and you have a power so great that humans are not only its victims, they are growing new brains to accommodate its vicissitudes.

    Why do balkanized versions of genuinely interesting and important research projects into human adaptability get transformed into this type of discourse? It is probably not sufficient to suggest that every new technology generates panic among those who least understand either its present use or future transformation.

    After all, had Carr taken even a minimum peak at the 19th century, he would have noticed that among other assertions, the telephone was described as a killer of conversation and human interaction (an attitude that lasted well into the 1960's). He would also have noticed that the cinema was described as a terrible distraction that among its many effects would probably lead to the death of literature and theatre. Photography was lambasted for its potential to lie and convince the gullible masses that the truth of an event could be found in images.

    But, Carr is not the problem here; he is merely symptomatic of an ever growing and worrying trend to ahistoricism among so called public intellectuals. Those who should be the most sensitive to the nuances of change and the shifting relationships among individuals and their communities and the communications technologies they use are now sanctimoniously declaring that the public is being dumbed down. Carr, of course, never spent any time doing an empirical study because it would have taken him years to complete. He accuses internet dwellers of swimming in a sea of illusions without asking any hard questions about how he came to that conclusion.

    His lack of attention to history is what he suggests internet users have devolved into, and, in so doing, he imposes on this vast and ever changing community with all of its diversity and multi-national character a superficiality of intent that he himself creates with his own very shallow arguments.


    Digital Culture Notes: Part Two

    E-Books, iPads and Digital Things

    Much has been made of the iPad’s possible influence on the future of reading and writing. Many of the fears about the disappearance of physical books are justified just as the worries about the future of newspapers needs to be taken very seriously. There is no doubt that we have entered an unstable period of change as various traditional forms of media shift to accommodate the impact of the Internet and digital culture in general.

    However, the idea that books will disappear or that newspapers will lose their relevance because they may have to shift to devices like the iPad is naïve at best and alarmist. After all, books are really just pages and pages of discourse sometimes fictional, often not. All the genres that make up what we call the modern novel are not dependent on the physical boundaries established by traditional book production. In fact, an argument can be made that the process through which books have been brought to the attention of the reading public (ads, publicity campaigns and so on) are more in danger of dying than the books themselves. There is only one way in which books will die, and that is if we cease to speak or if we shift so dramatically to an oral culture that the written word becomes redundant.

    An argument could be made that people inundated by many different forms of media expression will relegate books to the attics in their homes and in their minds. And a further argument could be made that the decline of reading has been happening for some time, if we look at the number of books sold over the last decade. There is a real danger that books and the reading public will shrink even further.

    Nevertheless, my sense is that reading has morphed onto the Web and other media and that reading is more about glances and headlines than in-depth absorption of texts. We now have a multimedia space that links all manner of images with texts and vice-versa. The nature of content is shifting as are the venues in which that content can be read. The design of graphical spaces is often more important than words. Texts on the iPad can be embedded with moving images and sounds and so on, in much the same manner as we now do with web pages. However, this phantasmagoria of elements is still governed by language, discourse and expression.

    Matt Richtel has an article in the New York Times that examines the interaction of all of these divergent media on users. “At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.” Richtel suggests that the intensity of these activities and the need to multitask are rewiring the human brain. I am not able to judge whether that is true or not, but irrespective it would be foolhardy not to recognize that all of this activity increases the speed of interaction. Clearly, reading a non-fiction book is not about speed and books in general cannot be read in the same way as we read web pages, especially if we are looking at book content on mobile phones.

    The same can be said for newspapers, which over the years have been designed to entice readers into reading their pages through headlines in order to slow down the tendency to glance or scan. This tells us something about the challenges of print. We tend to assume that the existence of a newspaper means that it is read. But, there has always been a problem with attention spans. Newspapers are as much about a quick read, as are web pages. Newspapers are generally read in a short time, on buses or trains — talk about multitasking.

    As it turns out this is very much the same for many genres of the novel from thrillers to the millions of potboilers that people read and that are not generally counted when reference is made to the reading public. In fact, the speed of reading has accelerated over the last hundred years in large measure because of the increased amount of information that has become available and the need to keep up.

    This is where e-books and the iPad come in. E-books are an amazing extension of books in general, another and important vehicle for the spread of ideas. The iPad will make it possible (if authors so desire) to extend their use of words into new realms. Remember, when the cinema was invented in 1895 among the very first comments in the British Parliament was that moving images would destroy theatre, books and music. Instead, the cinema has extended the role of all of these forms either through adaptation or integration. Writers remain integral to all media.