Saturday, November 27, 2010

Squib of the Day, November 27th, 2010:

“If you’re not on top of technology, you’re not going to be on top of the world.”
—John McMullen, retired criminal investigator, quoted in "Growing Up digital, Wired for Distraction," by Matt Richtel, New York Times.

There are so many unintended ironies in Mr. McMullen's claim that it's hard to know where to start. In the context of the Times piece, he seems to be defending his son Sean's addiction to video games. Sean, a student at Woodside High School, spends four hours after school each day playing online video games and twice that amount on weekends. Throw in time spent on Facebook and texting and surfing for videos on YouTube and you begin to see why Sean’s grades have nosedived recently. Never mind getting on top of the world, the technology has gotten on top of Sean. And he’s fairly typical of high-school students these days.

Technology almost always has consequences. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution there has seldom been an instance of a particular technology improving the general condition of our lives without consequences. Maybe plumbing. Certainly indoor plumbing beats the hell out of pump handles and chamber pots—it’s hard to find any negatives
about delivering water and removing waste. But then we have lowered critical water tables and polluted streams. The automobile has improved our lives and given us the ability to travel in our morning commute distances that would have once taken several days. But since the 1970s and growing pollution and increasing federal expenditures on highways and the rising death toll from accidents(nearly 34,000 people in 2009 alone—over ten times the number killed on 9/11), and America's increasing dependence on Middle East oil became evident (the reason for 9/11), some of the chrome has started to pit. Once radio, and later TV, seemed to bring the nation together in times of crisis, giving us a sense of shared experience, and we would argue that the increasing diversity portrayed by those media—particularly television—made us a more tolerant nation, though in times of economic stress that tolerance seems to strain a bit, and the medium seems to more and more become not so much Newton Minnow’s vast wasteland, though reality TV proves it is that too, but a landscape of soapboxes for those who would divide us to stand on and shout their stupidity at us.

There are some downsides on our environment and quality of life to every new technology. But the consequences of the digital revolution is especially worrisome: it seems that the distraction and instant gratification offered by the new technology negatively affects brain development itself.

In 1954, two brain researchers at McGill University in Montreal, James Olds and Peter Milner, implanted electrodes into the brains of rats. The particular area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, was thought to control feelings of pleasure. The scientists rigged up a lever in the corner of the cage and when the rat pushed on the lever the electrode was activated, causing the rat to experience intense pleasure. As soon as the rats discovered the lever and its properties, they would press it over and over again, ignoring even food and water, until they finally died of exhaustion.

A colleague and I were recently dining with a teenager who had just graduated from high school and was soon to be off to the university. When the food arrived she bowed her head and appeared to give thanks for the meal. We are not religious, but were respectfully silent, and we waited for her to finish. And we waited. And we waited. Eventually, after thirty seconds or so, she looked up, smiled, and, reluctantly it seemed to us, placed her cellphone next to her plate. She had been holding it in her lap and texting. Seldom, though the course of the meal, did an entire minute pass without her picking up the thing and checking for messages.

That such behavior may be ill-mannered is the subject for another time. That it is almost universal can be confirmed by anyone who has children. But the consequences of such habitual behavior on her ability to concentrate on schoolwork—or any task at hand—without immediately being distracted does not bode well for her university career.

There is a growing body of evidence that we are not so different from rats as we might like to believe. And it will probably come as no surprise to any parent paying more attention than Mr. McMullen, that, left to their own devices, children will use the computer for entertainment and distraction rather than study. And as the power of computers has increasingly become available in cellphones, parental supervision has become impossible.

We are not Luddites here at the Goombah. Cell phones offer security to those who travel alone and piece of mind to parents of teenagers. And we know computers and their digital spawn are not going away any time soon, nor would we want them to. It's impossible for those of us who grew up before words could be processed and internets surfed to say the computer is not a necessity and a good thing in the modern world. But for many young people, living in the virtual world for so much of the day may be having an adverse affect on brain development. They cannot stop pulling the lever. And that is cause for concern. The mastery of the technology is the easy part. Keeping it from mastering us is not so simple a matter.

The following video accompanies the Times piece.
Viewing time 7 minutes 45 seconds.


tpartier said...

I believe I first read it in an interview republished in, "Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloons", where Kurt Vonnegut explains why he did not spend much time on elaborate description. His answer acknowledged the ever decreasing amount of true leisure time and the widening choices in entertainment. He reasoned that for his books to be maximally enjoyable and - as his readers know - at times uncannily eloquent, you'd better get right to the meat of the matter. If I recall correctly, the interview was in 1971 or so, shortly after the release of his seminal war story - "Slaughterhouse Five" - to screen.

By then - we already had a notable author who practiced to meet that perception. Probably explains why I could not buy into Tolkien...

As a technologist whose first interest in electronics (as in discreet components and circuits) pre-dated the micro computer, I have long and often considered the social implications of the outputs - especially potential outputs - of my industry. In as many aspects of life as I could.

As a parent to a gaggle of kids myself - all but one a grown adult with 1 or more kids themselves - I know that not all kids are the same. I have nine brothers and sisters, that inform my impressions as well.

I was aware that there were spineless parents out there, and tragically in many situations - good parents forced to be away to two jobs just to make ends meet, lessening their influence. But never did I imagine such a complete collective spinelessness that would allow electronic devices to interfere in the real progress of education.

Make no mistake - there is by default - a place in education for modern devices - they form the backbone of business communications in many scenarios. The flashy technology of my High School years was the IBM Selectric typewriter - with calculators emerging. All significant and "life relevant" advancements require attention in the school environment, at some level.

Of course our kids have to be reasonably fluent in the uses of these technologies. But, can there not be constraint so that the essential goals for a rounded education that results in a versatile, critical thinking person are met?

The complete and utter failure of some large percentage of parents - clearly among the affluent as well; or these things would never get a foothold in common culture - to enforce a mindset of reasonable discipline in their kids creates additional pressures on those who strive to engender a work ethic in their kids.

It ends up being a losing battle if we're not careful. PBS did a 2 hours look into the same sorts of questions a few months back. I do not recall the name of the program, though it was at times, quite provocative.

mtedone said...

In grade school in the 50's we were often distracted; so we looked out the window, or read a comic book tucked inside our text book, or shot spit balls. How's that for high tech?

It was never easy for a kid to focus on the task at hand; that's what discipline is for.

What bothers me more than kids constantly texting, etc. are parents yelling at teachers every time their child fails to get an A. If we brought home lousy grades, we were punished, compelled to give up the baseball game or practice and sit inside and study the extra 2-3 hours.

When 67% of the mothers out working, who does that now?

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