Nothing New Under the Thumbs

November 21st, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

About that attention thing…people have not been paying attention to those around them as well as to behavioral literature. The meme that relates appears yet again in today’s NY Times maggy. Researchers are yet again pimping the concept that current technology distorts and ruins the mental abilities of youth.

Some of this seems purely generational. Thirty-something and older scholars decry the intellectual failings of those youngsters. We’ve been seeing this ploy from the origins of the written word.  “When I was your age…”

This time, it is yet again the current technology as a hook. Think, smart phone making kids stupid, truncated Twitter tweets ruining deep thought, and factoids from Wikipedia removing any drive to read and then analyze.

In the defense of those who discover, rediscover and shill this new, improved, exciting scholarship, we can see evidence worldwide. Kids with callouses on their thumbs, folk with wireless headsets chattering away (we hope not just to themselves), and youth who do not read newspapers or have even rudimentary knowledge of human history.

Ahem, go back one or two generations and see the same simple-minded fallacy. Back in the 1950s and 60s, it was TV. By cracky, boys and girls today sit with their mouths open, wasting their lives on cartoons and dumb programs; when I was their age, I knew how to read!

In the next generation, it was the internet, rather the World Wide Web, to those of us who, by cracky, used the net before browsers with text search and online message (bulletin boards). Now it’s iPhones, Facebook and such for the next generation.

For the attention weak, the Times puts the punchline near the top:

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

That simply reeks of the same smelly sensationalism as previous super-generational hoo-ha.

If you’d like to see the living roots of such criticism, consider multitasking and look to boomer only children or firstborns. On the former, I’ve noted repeatedly (like here) Bill Gates is going to have to do considerable atoning for his foisting that belief on us to sell his Office software. Humans almost to a one are not capable of multitasking. Setting that expectation makes managers and workers alike inefficient and set up for failure. You can be sure that as nearly everyone says, “I’m a people person,” that everyone is sure he or she is a multitasker.

Second, for the special kids in any given family, the anecdotal evidence is powerful that the performance pressures are strongest for the firstborn and for an only child. That is particularly true, regardless of gender, if dad or both parents are overachievers.

We see a great sense of competitiveness. It often comes with doting parents and even teachers telling Master or Miss Special how superior everything they do and the people they are are.

The corollary effect is constant rewarding of the quick response. (Sound familiar today?) At home and in school and even among classmates, they learn to blurt an acceptable answer or interpretation before anyone else. Much praise follows and reinforces this behavior.

What they and everyone around lose is an emphasis on or drive to insight, completeness, analysis and even wisdom.  These, if you pardon, intellectual premature ejaculators become wired for shouting out the OK answers.

Thus, we presaged the meme of digital kids. We already have behavioral mechanisms in place to ruin thinking. We’ve done it for who knows how long…and without the need of technology.

Niggles and Memes

Of course, the sad truth of most academic research is that many perform it and few add appreciably to the body of their area’s lore.

Think of young Talmudic students. They may sit or stand in pairs or larger groups in yeshiva debating a passage or even a phrase. They may alternate debate positions, vigorously contradicting themselves in succession. The idea here repeats in much of secular scholarship. Attempt to worry ideas or facts beyond intellectual death and resurrection, with the idea that doing so brings you closer and closer to truth and knowledge.

Much of academic work and writing does the same, only without the give and take. Typically a scholar has a solid idea or realization and publishes it. Others already working in the field may defensively say and write, in effect, that this position is crap. Mostly they’ll take a detail and claim to refute it with the implication, in an Ayn Rand sort of way, that the whole paper is therefore unworthy junk. This inability to judge larger ideas and works again is the short-attention-span meme.

Most often, the critics are tired and effete. Without their own big ideas or innovations, they are reduced to finding holes or stains in the intellectual garments of others. There are, after all, many scholars and seemingly relatively few ideas and breakthroughs.

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