More Luddite FUD about kids and computers

Paul Raven @ 24-05-2011

I was thinking it had been a while since we had one of these. Via FuturePundit, O NOEZ TEH TECHNOLOGIES BE MAKIN KIDS SUCK AT TEH REEDIN:

“Our study shows that the entry of computers into the home has contributed to changing children’s habits in such a manner that their reading does not develop to the same extent as previously. By comparing countries over time we can see a negative correlation between change in reading achievement and change in spare time computer habits which indicates that reading ability falls as leisure use of computers increases”, says Monica Rosén.

OK, I’ll see your study and raise you with this one:

The e-Learning Foundation says that children without access to a computer in the evening are being increasingly disadvantaged in the classroom. Research suggests that 1.2 million teenagers log on to revision pages every week and those using online resources were on average likely to attain a grade higher in exams.

The charity cites BBC research in which more than 100 students used the BBC Bitesize revision materials before their GCSE examination. The children were found to have achieved a grade lift compared to those who did not use the online revision guides. The BBC study says: “This is compared to factors such as teacher influence, which was found to produce no significant difference.”

Which is right? I have no idea. The point is that if you send social scientists looking for evidence to support a pretty nebulous and hard-to-quantify phenomenon, they’ll probably rustle some up. Seek and you shall find… or, I dunno, spend that research money on looking into ways that we can use technology more effectively? How’s about it, huh?

Computers and the internet are here to stay. The way kids learn and interact with the world has changed hugely in last 100 years, and will keep changing, as it always has since the day some smart hunter/gatherer created the first baby sling. If all you’re gonna do is sit on your porch and kvetch about the good old days, you might as well let the kids get some enjoyment out of running around on the lawn.

OMG intarweb litricy FAIL

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, but they never entirely go out of fashion: the English Spelling Society commissions a report and finds that (gasp!) Facebook and chatrooms and forums and texting and stuff are encouraging children to spell words incorrectly!

Now, to be fair, I fully expect they’ve got a dataset tucked away that supports that statement, and I’m not going to try and claim that internet communication has no influence over the way young people use language. However, I find it unlikely that the English Spelling Society would have published a report that said the internet was making no difference to literacy at all, in the same way we’re unlikely to see a memo from the Discovery Institute saying “actually, nix all that earlier stuff, these fossils are pretty damned convincing after all!” Caesar hears what is pleasing to Caesar, after all.

And then there’s the research that claims exactly the opposite, and points out that while most people’s spelling and grammar may not be perfect, the rise of the internet and the infinite number of channels for text-based communication it provides mean that we’re writing far more than we ever did before. Granted, that writing may not conform to Victorian-era ideals of “correct” communication, but the world has changed a lot since those ideals were enshrined; surely communication should be assessed on how effective it is in each given circumstance? Maybe I’m being overly Darwinian about this, but it strikes me that communication methods which didn’t communicate effectively wouldn’t have much chance to get traction in a fast-moving culture like ours.

Or, to put it another way: the kids spell funny because that works for them, and I suspect the horror this produces in older generations of linguists is at least partly to do with feeling shut out by this new linguistic shift, much like the flashes of paranoia one experiences in restaurants and bars abroad where you momentarily think everyone is talking about you in a language you can’t follow clearly*. “Street slang” has always been touted as a symptom of imminent societal collapse (again, at least as far back as the Victorian era, as far as I know)… but here we still are, inflating the sphere of human knowledge despite the kids using weird words and improper spellings. Go figure, AMIRITEZ?

And lets not forget that spellings and pronunciations have never basked in some arcadian stasis, solid and immovable against culture’s fluxing tides; look back just a few hundred years, and you’ll see a language so different to today’s that it seems almost laughable due to its unfamiliarity. Language changes, and it changes through being used. That’s not something to fear; in fact, it’s probably something to celebrate.

[ * OK, that may just be me, then. ]

Kevin Kelly on technological literacy

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2010

Via BoingBoing, here’s a New York Times piece by Kevin Kelly, where he discusses what he learned about technology and education while homeschooling his son for a year:

… as technology floods the rest of our lives, one of the chief habits a student needs to acquire is technological literacy — and we made sure it was part of our curriculum. By technological literacy, I mean the latest in a series of proficiencies children should accumulate in school. Students begin with mastering the alphabet and numbers, then transition into critical thinking, logic and absorption of the scientific method. Technological literacy is something different: proficiency with the larger system of our invented world. It is close to an intuitive sense of how you add up, or parse, the manufactured realm. We don’t need expertise with every invention; that is not only impossible, it’s not very useful. Rather, we need to be literate in the complexities of technology in general, as if it were a second nature.

He goes on to add some more specific aphorism-style lessons – koans for a digital world, almost:

  • Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.
  • The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.
  • Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  • The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.
  • Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

Some very sf-nal thinking in there… no surprise coming from Kelly, but even so, it reiterates something of Walter Russel Mead’s praise of the genre as the source of a useful way of looking at the world.

It’s also pleasing to see Kelly’s focus on trying to instil an appreciation of (and desire for) learning in his son. I’m far from the first person to observe that the UK education system has long favoured the retention of facts over independent analytical and critical thinking as educational goals, and I’ve seen plenty of reports that suggest the US system has a similar problem. Kelly’s aphorisms underline the point: if you make kids memorise facts, their education is obsolete as soon as it’s finished. Learning how to learn is the most important lesson of them all, and the one that seems hardest for schools and universities to deliver.

Teens don’t read and can hardly write, right?

Paul Raven @ 12-02-2010

Inbox overload!Wrong… unless those 40,000 words they text out over a month don’t count [via LifeHacker; image by nate steiner].

Sure, a lot of those texts will be rote replies and simple questions, but the point stands: teenagers communicate heavily using a form of the written word. When I was a teenager in the nineties I used to write a lot of letters, but I’d be very surprised if I approached a tenth of that wordcount, which equates to the lower limit for a novel (or at least it used to). Text has a lower bandwidth than face-to-face speech, but SMS messages have the advantage of asynchronicity over a regular phone call, and as gnomic as the compressed words and pseudo-1337 of text messages may be to us older folk, they have the same capability for hidden meaning and word-play as “proper” writing.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure, to be honest… but I’m increasingly convinced that blaming technologised teen lifestyles for their perceived disinterest in reading is a fiction born of contempt and generational differences. The “cellphone novel” is a popular format in Japan – has anyone really tried pushing it here in the West? Or will we need to wait for that generation to grow its own stars and mavens organically without the help of old-media gatekeepers?

The Edge Question 2010: how is the internet changing the way you think?

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2010

Just in case you’ve not encountered it before, the Edge Foundation runs an annual open-question session wherein they pick a current topic and pitch it to some of the more interesting and adventurous thinkers of the world.

This year’s question was, simply enough, “How is the internet changing the way you think?”, and the resulting answers – from characters as diverse as Brian Eno, Freeman Dyson and Howard Rheingold – range from concerned through to cautiously optimistic and back again.

This year sees one of my favourite science fiction authors among the respondants; those of you already acquainted with Rudy Rucker’s writing won’t be surprised to see that his vision of the near-future has more than a hint of the psychedelic communal utopia about it:

At this point, it looks like there aren’t going to be any incredibly concise aha-type AI programs for emulating how we think. The good news is that this doesn’t matter. Given enough data, a computer network can fake intelligence. And—radical notion—maybe that’s what our wetware brains are doing, too. Faking it with search and emergence. Searching a huge data base for patterns.

The seemingly insurmountable task of digitizing the world has been accomplished by ordinary people. This results from the happy miracle that the internet is that it’s unmoderated and cheap to use. Practically anyone can post information onto the web, whether as comments, photos, or full-blown web pages. We’re like worker ants in a global colony, dragging little chunks of data this way and that. We do it for free; it’s something we like to do.

Given the choice of fictional futures to inhabit, I’m inclined to think the ones born of Rucker’s mind would be the most fun… 🙂

If you’ve got some time to kill, I recommend browsing through all the Edge question answers; even if you disagree with all of them, I’ll be surprised if you don’t find some serious food for thought (not to mention ideas for stories).

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