A Shallow Collective?

As I begin my summer reading binge, I’ve been trying to balance my consumption of pro-technology materials to include anything that offers alternative and/or critical views of the new (e.g. tech.-focused) directions in education. Much like I’ve argued with questions of the value of foreign language, I think it’s healthy to face and even embrace criticism, since it helps us to build a fuller understand of why we do certain things in certain ways through reflection, lest our ideas become dogmatic or myopic.

With that, I recently read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, followed immediately by Douglas Thomas and John Brown’s A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, which seem to have been written for one another, despite having no apparent knowledge of the other book’s existence (other than a single citation in New Culture without any explicit commentary on Shallows). It’s proven quite interesting to read both books in succession, since in many respects they occupy entirely different ends of the technological spectrum and can thus be read as criticism of each other in the regard mentioned above.

Carr’s Shallows, an “exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences”, gives a thought-provoking challenge to those who advocate technology. Carr’s thesis is that the increased use and even dependence on the internet is affecting our attention, focus, and deep-thinking skills, and he presents a rather impressive collection of evidence in favor of the neurological consequences of certain technologies. Since finishing it a week ago, I’ve been thinking more about the broader applications of technology in education in light of his conclusions, and I’ll outline just a few of the ideas that I’ve found interesting.

The first few chapters paint a 2000-year intellectual history of literary culture and the relation to the neuroplasticity of the brain, before he probes the internet’s more recent effects on our thinking. One of his main criticisms is that more information necessarily allows less time to use it (Shallows 170), which then leads him to a short and subtle attack against Google’s search engine (Shallows 72). And with less time spent in reflection and deep thought, we’re unable to achieve a high level of memorization (Shallows 177), since the internet harms “working memory” (Shallows 193) and our attentiveness (Shallows 193-4).

Going even farther, Carr claims that the “offloading of memory” poses a threat to our very culture: “Outsource culture, and memory withers” (Shallows 197). We can even lose our “humanity” by relying so heavily on the internet (Shallows 207, 220), and we pay the price via alienation from each other (Shallows 211).  To my mind, Carr’s claims at times tend toward the sensational, but that’s not to say that they should be dismissed.

If The Shallows can be read as the critic’s cautionary tale against the increased use of technology, then New Culture champions the proponent’s response.  For what it’s worth, New Culture doesn’t privilege technology in its discussion or even discuss very many specific examples of tech. tools.  Instead, it’s about, as the title makes clear, the “new culture of learning” that technology and the “fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century” (New Culture 17) has given us. Nearly everything that Carr offers as evidence for the dangers to thinking that internet brings to the brain finds a response in New Culture, and the two books couldn’t present two more contrary views of the cultural value of technology.
The ideas in New Culture are centered around the “collective” environment, where “teachers no longer need to scramble to provide the latest up-to-date information to students because the students themselves are taking an active role in helping to create and mold it, particularly in areas of social information” (New Culture 52).  The new learning collective, then, is far from the solitary experience that Carr describes in The Shallows.
The “new culture of learning about the kind of tension that develops when students with an interest or passion that they want to explore are faced with a set of constraints that allow them to act only within given boundaries” (New Culture 81).  That is to say, taking advantage of the new media in education is more than simply unleashing students on internet; rather, there’s a concerted attempt to incorporate innovation, combining structure with freedom (New Culture 48-9).
In the old mod model of education, students learn about world and their learning culture was precisely equal to their environment, within the “intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration” (Shallows 114); but in the new model, they learn with world (New Culture 38) and their culture emerges from environment (New Culture 37-8). The learning community is constructed such that its members are constantly referencing each other (New Culture 25) and learning from other’s experiences (New Culture 29), with the result that they learn more than just “data”:  their learning is “personal” and students are thus more invested (New Culture 31), in contrast to being “alienated” by technology (Shallows 211).
It’s proven interesting to read these two books in succession, given the seemingly contradictory ideas they propose.  If I have any criticism of my own to levy against The Shallows, it’s that Carr is too “traditional” in his outlook. He has overlooked the communal advantage that the internet and social media offer to today’s students. Carr openly acknowledges that the world is shifting to the paradigm of digital culture and away from solitary reading and “intellectualism” (Shallows 108), but, aside from the argument against attention loss, it’s not clear to me from his conclusions why such a shift can only have negative consequences.

I’m not one to dismiss intellectualism, but I also don’t think that the world needs more solitary intellectuals right now. Thomas and Brown claim that “[a]lmost every difficult issue we face today is a collective, rather than a personal, problem” (New Culture 59), and it seems that these sorts of problems that we face and will continue to face can only be effectively addressed through collaboration.

While Carr laments the “outsourcing” of memorization (Shallows 181), Thomas and Brown applaud the shift away from it (New Culture 43). Digital culture allows students to ask more inquiry-based questions like “what are the things that we don’t know and what questions can we ask about them?” (New Culture 83), where answers serve as starting points for other questions. I couldn’t help but think of Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment, in which he gave kids in India access to the internet and watched as they collectively taught themselves how to use it. These kids look like anything but automatons who have been “numbed” from overexposure to the internet.
Carr’s critical attitude toward Google is patently clear (Shallows 172), as are his beliefs about the price we pay for digitizing the world’s libraries.  Thomas and Brown, on the other hand, offer a real-world example whereby Google was used by a neophyte coder to learn from his mistakes by using Google to find solutions and improve his work in the process (New Culture 26).
Though Carr argues that dependence on the internet leads one to lose identity by viewing it as an extension of themselves (Shallows 219), Thomas and Brown believe that digital culture via “collective indwelling” actually helps to create identity by giving students the opportunity to question their relationship with others through “hanging out” (New Culture 101) and by giving themselves more personal agency through “messing around” (New Culture 103). Most of all, “[g]eeking out provides an experiential, embodied sense of learning withing a rich social context of peer interaction, feedback, and knowledge construction enabled by a technological infrastructure that promotes ‘intense, autonomous, interest driven’ learning” (New Culture 104).  9-year-old Sam illustrated the example of the “new culture” well, in that he is able to take advantage of collective learning not only to improve his knowledge of programming, but to improve his overall understanding of citizenship (New Culture 20-21) â€” an understated but crucially important result of an effective collective.

In the end, while I disagree some of Carr’s conclusions in favor of the ideas in New Culture, he does an excellent job of collecting various studies on brain development and behavior to show how technology can affect our brains. For instance, it’s clear that we learn much worse when distracted, as has been shown through various experiments (cf. especially Shallows 133). Carr’s challenges to the growing importance of technology allows us to reflect on the purpose behind our choices. Whether beginning a 1;1 program, moving students to an LMS, or even just doing digital media projects, we should be clear about our goals, and we should never use technology simply to use technology. It’s up to educators to craft the right kind of collective environment for our students so we don’t end up too shallow or too deep.

If interested in the intersection of pedagogy and education, I suggest reading both of these fantastic books.  The #CAedchat summer book club will hold Twitter discussions on each of them over the next few months, where I’ll be eagerly looking forward to continuing the discussion about these ideas.