Looking on the Bright Side for the Future

When Jared Silver writes, it’s frequently thought-provoking, enlightening and worth considering.

This is a very interesting piece he’s written for Edu Surge that puts the argument that as the internet becomes readily available to anyone anywhere in the world, so, we are entering a new human revolution that will unlock human potential at levels we cannot even imagine.

EduSurge – The Impending Human Capital Revolution

His evidence for this is the rarity, historically of Indian or Chinese Nobel Prize winners – because the people in those countries didn’t have the same access to knowledge and education compared with those in more developed nations. Now that the internet is freely available everywhere, so everyone can have access to all of human knowledge.

The first issue I would have with this argument is that by no means does the internet contain all of human knowledge or even most of the best knowledge. I think we’re a very long way from that and will continue to be for a long time. For one, even if we think of new knowledge that is published in books. At most, people give access to snippets of it online in order to entice more people to buy the books. They’re not about to give it all away for free. Secondly, there are vast parts of the world’s population who have severely restricted access to the internet, with large parts of knowledge placed behind curtains where they are not permitted to go. Laws and rules that restrict access can all too easily be imposed on people in any part of the world, justified by nebulous concepts like ‘national interest.’

As highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ there are different kinds of thinking (engagement with knowledge) that lead to advances in human development. Whilst the internet and ubiquitous accessibility might give greater potential for the fast and shallow kind of thinking, it gives little scope for the slower, deeper forms of thinking. For that deeper thinking, people need access to the kinds of written material not generally accessible through the internet (at least for free) and access to other thinkers and experts in the chosen field with whom to share thoughts and ideas. On the latter point, email and ability to ‘find’ experts has had interesting implications. I recall a meeting and discussion with Dr Howard Gardner in which he slightly ruefully acknowledged that today he spends a far greater proportion of his time responding to speculative communication that he receives from people all over the world who want to tap in to his knowledge and insights. There is serious risk that this heightened level of accessibility makes his work less whilst giving little benefit in the enhanced knowledge of those corresponding with him – considering that the vast majority will still only be engaging with him at the most superficial levels.

One thing that Jared Silver’s article doesn’t really make clear, is whether he sees this human revolution emerging because a few more exceptional people will be able to emerge because of their newfound access to knowledge, information and each other, or whether he actually foresees an overall raising of all intellectual levels of all people. If he’s arguing for the latter, I’m really not sure that his examples about Nobel Prize winners are convincing proof as these people are by their very nature the exceptional, rarest of the rare.

If you walked in to most western school classrooms (or those in more affluent private schools anywhere in the world) and asked students what the internet changes, gives them access to most of their answers would relate to social networking and gaming. There is a strong argument to say that, especially with its addictive qualities, the internet is far from fueling an intellectual step forward for mankind, but rather giving him new and previously unforeseen ways to fritter away life on meaningless, addictive and compulsive activities. This is at its worst for those receiving a lot of unfettered access in their youth when the wiring of their brains predisposes them towards addictive and compulsive activities that give them repeated doses of dopamine and other neural ‘drugs’ that have nothing to do with enhancing mankind. instead, like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ it dulls the mind, eats up their time in ways that don’t challenge or move them forward intellectually and keep them limited in their advancement.

This has become of such concern to some educators that it leads to news articles like this recent one from the UK:

The Times – UK – Your Teacher’s At The Door – He Wants Your Xbox

Some years ago i had the privilege to host as a guest in one of our Delhi schools the great economist, CK Prahalad (who I suspect if not taken from us too soon was destined to be a future Nobel Prize winner). over coffee before and after the event we had conversations ranging over a wide array of topics. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his fears and apprehensions for the youth we worked with. The new young elite of India whose parents were all too frequently the first generation in their families to taste real economic success. he saw them suffering from a disease he described as “Affluenza” – an infection of plenty that undermines motivation and drive when these young people are growing up with all opportunities handed to them with ease and lacking the drive and the need to strive that marked out their parents’ generation. Such a level of complacency is more likely to lead to short cuts than hunger to use and access all possible information and knowledge that is accessible in the world.

The workings of human motivation, drive and the inclination to purpose have been areas of fascination to many (Daniel Pink – Drive, Roy Baumeister – Willpower, Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Just because opportunity is available to people, doesn’t mean they will take it, grasp it or see it as important. People’s aspirations and feelings of what’s possible or what are realistic and meaningful life goals are not simply shaped by exposure.

For example, ten to fifteen years ago, there were plenty of eminent experts who suggested that the growth of the internet would lead to new and greater levels of cultural understanding, empathy and recognition of common purpose amongst people of the world. The argument was that knowing people from all over the world, being exposed to them, understanding more of their culture would reduce fear, animosity and distance. however, as we see a wave of nationalism, protectionism and inter-cultural and religious sabre rattling, it’s clear that there is still just as much potential for people to be divided on ethnic, racial, religious or nationalistic lines as there ever has been.

In conclusion, the possibility that future Nobel prize winners might be more evenly distributed throughout the world doesn’t, in my view, automatically add up to a human revolution. Access and opportunity don’t change things on their own. Whilst i can agree that intellectual and knowledge accessibility may contribute to greater equity in the world, there is no rule that says a rising tide of accessible knowledge will raise all boats.

Controlled By The Internet

Yesterday, I wrote about the scientific understanding behind teenagers’ propensity for impulsiveness, their higher risks for addiction and inappropriate and higher risk behaviour. One of the aspects that was touched upon was addiction to online and internet activity, whether to gaming, social networking or pornography – all things that can potentially have devastating effects on a young life.

Frequently, over the last 5-6 years I’ve had conversations with parents who were trying to grapple with these issues. One question sometimes asked is how to tell whether there child just has a strong habit or an addiction. Also, people can understand at a fundamental level the way that a person can become addicted to a substance like nicotine or alcohol, but find it harder to see internet use as a form of addiction. However, all the evidence is that it ‘hits’ the same pleasure centres in the brain and this is why it can have such a powerful impact.

So, I was keen to share this research from University of North Carolina;

Quartz – New Study Says Half of US Students Could Be Internet Addicts

The findings are really quite stark and startling. This is something that has crept up on society at such pace and in such a startling manner that few are fully and adequately engaging with all the implications. Rational, educated, intelligent parents have had this happen in their homes, right under their noses – the same people who would have launched in to massive action if they saw even a hint of their child getting involved with tobacco or alcohol. If the numbers are really even close to what this research suggests, then the reality is that enormous numbers of students and their parents are really still in denial.

The article also contains some cautionary warnings for adults about the examples that have been/ are being set. However, there are times when I think this needs to be set in context. A parent who reads ebooks, literature or material for their professional or personal development on a device rather than in a book, or listens to professional podcasts, can hardly be compared with the student who spends 6+ hours a day exchanging meaningless social networking messages or playing a computer game. When the parents read books in the past, were the children all following their example then?

These are very real issues that have massive implications for society. And, it’s not going to get better. This year, the market will be hit by large volumes of virtual reality material – hardware and software. The fact that this will be potentially even more immersive, stimulating and exciting will bring more danger to more young people.

Families need to be engaging in open discussion on these issues and educators also need to be engaging young people in sensible, open conversaion so that they can be helped to make better choices for themselves.

Walk Away From That Screen, Kid!

The explosion of screens in our lives has been unprecedented in terms of the speed that things have happened. As a result, there are a lot of uncertainties about the implications, how much (or whether) screen use should be controlled.

This is an interesting summary of the current viewpoints in the USA, the first of two articles from New York Times, tied to a PBS broadcast on the subject;

NYTimes – Well – Blog – Screen Addiction Toll On Children

The first thing that struck me was that, for such a fast developing phenomenon, the data cited isn’t up to date enough. My guess is that if similar data was gathered today, it would reveal even more stark findings and extremes of what’s happening. In terms of the impact all this is having on children we really are in a very uncertain place – there just is no precedent for anything like it before.

For a number of years I was one of the (few?) parents who worked to keep a daily limit on screen time. The positives that came out of that were that my son read more, played outside more and, I believe, spent more time interacting with and reflecting upon the real world around him. The downsides were; his perceptions that he was wronged because he was the only one in his peer group subject to such rules, temptation to dishonesty and breaches of trust to find ways to circumvent the rules. Just as alcoholics will go to extraordinary lengths to get hold of drink, to conceal it and consume it, so the latent technology addict latches on to all sorts of spurious justifications. One of the simplest against a parent is the accusation that because they spend time with technology, so they have no right to limit the child’s. The fact that one is using it for work related email, research, report preparations, spreadsheets, writing etc. while the other uses it for mindless gaming and social chatter is apparently neither here nor there.

As my son got older it was inevitable that the trade off of asking him to take more responsibility in his own life would come with less sense in imposing such a rule. Once the restrictions were off, inevitably screen time went up a lot. Do I worry about its implications in his life? Yes, I do. Do I get concerned that with the combined ranks of those who wish to convince young people that life lived online is better than the real world his self-control, responsibility and commitments to make the best of his own life won’t be strong enough?

In Western countries when TV got bigger, regulations were there to control what could be seen when and what methods could be used to exploit or ‘suck in’ consumers. Likewise, the advertising industry was subjected to specific sets of rules about what it could do, what was acceptable, especially around children. The internet comes with none of these checks and balances.

More needs to be known, and quickly. There also needs to be advance thought given to future implications of newer developments like virtual reality – yet to become mainstream, but with enormous implications. Today, perhaps the hardest aspect to deal with is that as parents or educators we are not well-enough informed to know what is right or wrong, what is or isn’t dangerous. However, our ignorance is certainly not bliss and could be something we rue greatly in the future.

The students of our school have now been on summer vacation for around two and a half weeks. I hope, for their sake, that they’re not all buried deep in a screen right now. I would love nothing more than for them to cut their screen time in favour of some outdoor activity, reading, art or even just time to chat and play with siblings. What’s the saying – moderation in all things!

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