Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maybe It's the Google

I've been away from the blog for a few weeks: first vacation since the twins were born, relatives visiting from the UK, too much rain.  Or, I could jump on the bandwagon and wonder, along with this Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"  It is of course too easy to blame google, or anything else isolated, for the massive shift in the way we interact with information in the digital age, and it is much too easy to say it is a shift to "stupidity."  As my provost pointed out in an e-mail exchange about the article, innovations always change the ways we think and create.  

But what I like about the Atlantic article is the way it connects reading to thinking, and with the HAL reference, wraps them in our growing realization that we humans are not adapting technology to our needs, but that we humans are adapting to technology.  That process of becoming ever more machine-like in our cognitive styles may only be countered by deep thinking, contemplation, poetry, abstraction, and listening to the long forms, not only the loops.  

On the other hand, as my provost also pointed out, there is something to be said for the new pace, for speed, and our students have far less qualms about it than we do.  The resources at our fingertips with google do not make us stupid, and do not provide only shallow information.  Indeed, the NY Times article on reading, which referred to the Atlantic piece, explored the question of information literacy, appropriately separating it from and linking it to traditional reading skills.   For thinking about speed, there is no one better than Paul Virilio, and here is a short and swift piece from CTheory 1995 that shows how fast some things change.

The big question is how to foster a critical awareness of technology, whether it be staggeringly useful google or the compelling yet frustrating Second Life.  How do we hold onto the best of the old--the deep reading, the contemplation--and wrap our eager fingers around the wii of the new--quick, current, reflex, move on to the next youtube phenomenon because the last one wasn't worth thinking about for too long, anyway?  I think that becoming aware of the idea of cognitive style, of how the different technologies, software, and hardware we use shape the questions we ask, the processes on which we embark, and the solutions and creative work we produce, is at least a place to start. 

People always say "technology is neutral," but it isn't.  Perhaps the smartest quotation I've read about technology's influence is by Donald Norman, in a book whose title holds out hope against the Atlantic's google-phobia: 

Technology is not neutral.  Technology has properties--affordances--that make it easier to do some activities, harder to do others: The easier ones get done, the harder ones neglected.  Each has its constraints, preconditions, and side effects that impose requirements and changes on the things with which it interacts, be they other technology, people, or human society at large.  Finalyy, each technology poses a mind-set, a way of thinking about it and the activities to which it is relevant, a mind-set that soon pervades those touched by it, often unwittingly, often unwillingly.  The more successful and widespread the technology, the greater its impact upon all of society.  Technology is not neutral, it dominates.

Donald A. Norman.  Things that Make Us Smart.  Perseus Books, 1993, p. 243.

As we become aware of the non-neutrality, and that is what was truly shocking about HAL, then we can begin to understand and interact with technology in an enlightened way.

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