The Bits That Change – Ben Swift

This year I attended the Edutech conference in Brisbane, which was not unlike attending the Hillsong Conference of Technology. People were there for many different reasons, with different agendas but I think the fact that we all come away with different thoughts and opinions is because we carry ‘confirmation bias’ with us from the moment we enter the doors. I personally had questions tainted with an element of skepticism from the outset and that is probably why I connected with one presenter more than any other, as she brought to the table many of the questions that were already floating in my mind, but she also brought facts and scientific data as support. The speaker I am referring to is Susan Greenfield, the author of Mind Change, How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains.

I think it’s important to think about and question the effects digital technologies are having and will have on our minds, our culture and the direction we would like society to move in the future in relation to technology.

Firstly, what is the Internet? An interesting quote from a lady being interviewed on a series on ABC called ‘The Dark Net’ suggests that the Internet provides a place where humanities worst can be let loose without the laws of society to control it. You may have more positive thoughts about the Internet, I’m just trying to provoke your thinking.

The fact is it doesn’t matter if we like the Internet or not it’s here and not going away. As a 1990’s leading educator in Rock, Melissa Etheridge once wrote, ‘The only thing that stays the same is change.’ Whilst it is important to embrace the good things about change, we shouldn’t forget the things we already know and practices that have been effective for generations. E.g. A recent episode of ‘The Revolution School’ featuring on the ABC showed that in secondary schools in Victoria they have rediscovered an amazingly transforming practice that is positively impacting students’ overall achievement. It’s called ‘Independent Reading’. Who knew. Reading might once again become the new black in education.

We must think, ask questions and evaluate. Is all change good? What are the positives and negatives and where are we getting our answers from? Google? Apple? Or better, independent research not linked to financial incentives.

This would be a good time to think about what culture is, what gives it life and what takes it away. Patrick J. Deneen provides some interesting and thought-provoking ideas in this area in his article, ‘Technology, Culture and Virtue’ published in ‘The New Atlantis’ 2008. Culture is deeply related to, and dependent on, the facts of the natural world, including human nature. Culture provides a way for us to preserve and transmit our inheritance of how to survive and even thrive in a world filled with gifts and dangers. Culture has always centered on our relationship to the earth and our relationships to one another, remembering the past and being mindful of the future. Human culture is in itself a technology, and the technologies that have been preserved in human cultures have worked alongside nature. In a sense, every age has been an age of technology. However, over the past several decades, technology has dominated. Deneen suggests that in our current technological age, there has been an expansion of technologies that have purposively undermined and destroyed culture as just defined. Many digital technologies focus more on novelty and less on sustaining us.

If all technologies ultimately replace themselves with something else, we are living in a time when our technologies are replacing the original human technology of culture. If we continue to employ technology in ways that increasingly dehumanize us, by abandoning nature and culture, we ultimately destroy ourselves.

Do we really want the film Wall-E to become prophetic, where humans evolve into blob-like beings separated from touch and real human interaction, purely focused on their screens.

Sherry Turkle in a TED talk about her book, ‘Together Alone’, suggests, ‘Modern technology has become a phantom limb, it has become so much a part of us’.

So why question the way we use digital technologies in our lives? Shouldn’t we just jump on the metaphorical bus and take the road paved by Google and Apple? I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t embrace technologies at all, there are some awesome innovations out there, but rather consider where the technologies may take us as both individuals and as a society. This is where Baroness Susan Greenfield grabbed my attention. Susan works in the field of neuroscience and has written several books including, ‘Mind Change’, that investigate scientifically the effects of digital technologies on our brains and on how we relate in community. I would like to share some of her findings and arguments as a means of provoking questions in your minds. No doubt there will be several people who will disagree with the information presented, but the aim is to stir the pot, not to conform.

Mind Change. What does it mean? The argument underlying the notion of mind change goes like this. The human brain will adapt to whatever environment in which it is placed. The cyberworld of the 21st Century is offering a new type of environment. Therefore, the brain could be changing in parallel, in correspondingly new ways.

So what has neuroscience found in terms of mind change and the use and influence of digital technologies?

Firstly, digital technology has the potential to become the end rather than the means, a lifestyle all of its own. The digital world offers the possibility, even the temptation, of becoming a world unto itself. From socializing to shopping, working, learning, and having fun, everything we do, every day, can now be done very differently in an indefinable parallel space. For the first time ever, life through a screen is threatening to outcompete real life. As soon as people wake, the first thing 79% of the population will do within 15 minutes of consciousness, is to check their smart phone.

In a recent National trust report, the term “nature deficit disorder” was used as an expression of an endemic pattern of behavior, indicating for the first time ever, that we have become dissociated with the natural world with all its beauty, complexity and constant surprise. Perhaps even being immersed in the sounds of silence could become a rare experience in the future.

It would be naïve and simplistic to view the power and pervasiveness of the new digital lifestyle as either the greatest form of existence ever or the most toxic culture ever. We are being offered an unprecedented and complex cocktail of opportunity and threat. The thing is, not everyone will agree on exactly what constitutes which.

It is important to understand that anything that changes your brain, changes who you will be. Your brain is not just a product of genetics, it is sculpted by a lifetime of experiences. So behavioural changes reflect changes within the brain and visa-versa. The harder specific neurons work away at a particular activity, the more of the brain they will take up. The impact of repeating various experiences such as playing music and sports on brain functioning are what mind change is all about. The human brain is constantly adapting physically to repeated types of behaviours on a use it or lose it basis. This leads us to the question, ‘How is the way we use digital technologies changing our brain?’

Then we come to the issues associated with social networking and identity. Privacy is fast becoming a less prized possession, particularly amongst the young digital natives. This is often a trade-off for the perceived moments of fame that can be achieved through sharing on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Perhaps this is because the possibility of online self-management allows for distortion where we can now create our identity and hence relationships. We can advertise ourselves in a way that is free from the constraints of reality, an idealized, edited version of our real selves. Research has shown that one direct outcome could be an exaggerated obsession with the self, in other words, a rise in narcissism. As Susan Greenfield and many others have suggested, social networking can demonstrably increase narcissism levels. We need to ask ourselves, is this what we want for society? Another interesting point Susan makes is that through social media, we are being exposed to so-called perfect lives, as we read about people, draw conclusions and make personal comparisons. These apparently perfect lives put pressure on us to be perfect, admired and fulfilled, a goal that is inevitably doomed to failure and low self-esteem.

As far as the brain is concerned, it is impossible to disentangle identity from environment and context. It is therefore inevitable that the identity of the next generation will be formed in an extremely pervasive and ever-changing cyberculture. This also leads to the question, ‘how might online socializing differ from that in the real world?’ One difference that is suggested is in the development of interpersonal communication skills, and very importantly in empathy or the ability to care about others.

As we all know, the Internet with its sophisticated search engines has made accessing information on just about anything as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things that we want. While there are clear benefits of this ability, this seemingly efficient change to the new environment of the Internet brings other concerns. New brain patterns have indicated a switch in strategy from actually reading the information displayed. The new habit is focused more on being able to search quickly, avoiding in-depth reflection and rather taking things at face value.

So what is the consequence of this?

To quote Susan Greenfield, ‘The very effort we invest in the journey of discovery, in the time spent joining the dots and making connections across networks of neurons, gives an importance, a significance, to what we learn, so we see things in a new way. Now we are in danger of entering the reverse scenario, an arguably question poor world where our brains are saturation-bombed with answers but where it is hard not to be distracted and lose sight of what we wanted to know at the outset.’

In other words, the Internet provides an endless stream of facts, but the deep and meaningful questions remain less obvious. The habit of rushing and relying on Google’s first search results, along with a growing unwillingness to wrestle with uncertainty or inability to evaluate information, keeps the young stuck on the surface of the ‘Information Age, failing to develop depth. These findings have big consequences for learning in general and thus for overall success in life.

In general, for all of us, powerful interactive screen technologies are not just exciting experiences but critical tools that have reshaped our cognitive processes and will continue to do so, creating both benefits and problems. The difference between silicon and paper, the distractions of multitasking and hypertext, and the tendency to browse rather than to think deeply are all shifting the way our brains are being asked to work.

Thanks for reading but to finish I want to leave you with one final ironic quote.

Humanity has always had a love-hate relationship with progress. Some 400 years before Christ, Socrates was concerned that writing would destroy mental prowess, with arguments eerily similar to those we’ve explored here. He argued that writing will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

One thought on “The Bits That Change – Ben Swift

  1. Really enjoyed this Ben…lots of interesting points raised and questions that are worthy of further exploration. I especially appreciate the ‘final ironic quote’ which provides an interesting perspective to the whole discussion. I will follow your blog with great interest!


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