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Monday, April 28, 2008

The revolt of the cyber no-brainers

There was an article this week in the Sunday Times about the latest research being done by Professor Susan Greenfield, a front-edge thinker on the degeneration of the brain, as a result of ageing, disease, trauma and so on. She has produced a book on the subject: ID: the Quest for Identity in the 21st Century. Her work in this sphere has taken on a social dimension in that she avers that the young, by playing long hours on their screens could be irremediably affecting the plasticity of their brains. A consequence is that they may lose their sense of individuality. By submerging themselves in You Tube, Second Life, Face Book and all manner of social networking sites and avatar-based multi-user game programs, their sense of self may become increasingly diminished. As some readers will know, this has also been a preoccupation of many of these blogs. Greenfield also feels (the article could well have mashed her discursive thought into something unrecognisable, of course) that education’s historic importance in producing the brains needed to promote humanity’s future, is in decline. She cites the significance of learning facts, of recitation, of having to build personal structures of understanding from text and numeral in creating independence of thought. This new technological world will eradicate all this by addicting us to the quick fixes of the virtual world with its dopamine-releasing qualities. These neural changes may well result, she feels, in an increase in extremist behaviours such as dependency on cults and doctrines (gangs, terrorism, Waco, Jonestown etc) as the person loses his or her independence of being.

While many of these blogs have explored the effects upon identity of the virtual worlds within which some of us prefer to reside, I would not make any leap of connection to the thesis that the world is becoming increasingly extremist. Nor would I suggest that education was a positive experience of the kind she suggests. At the height of facts-based education, the 19th century was not exactly terror free! 9/11 is chilling for its symbolic power even more than its reality for it hardly compares in actual figures to deaths perpetrated by the regimes of Stalin, Hitler or Amin.

The problem, as I see it, is the reverse. The world of the classroom has become increasingly virtual in that it has become, over the decades, an alienating experience for the young. Lip service is paid to parenting, sex, drugs, crime and, latterly, the cyber experience. It was evident when I was responsible for primary research on computer games and videos in the early 1990s (Young Children, Videos and Computer Games: Issues for Teachers and Parents: 1997, Falmer Press) that the classroom and the bedroom were travelling in opposite directions. In a sense what has happened is that the cyber world has become today’s counter culture and one that does not just embrace intellectuals but people of all walks of life and propensities. The classroom has become seen as arid, over-structured and disconnected from the business of living, with its focus on league tables, examination results and a narrow interpretation of what it is to be educated. It is a factory that fails its products.

If the brains of the young are losing their vitality, as Professor Greenfield suggests, it is not the technology that is the root cause, it is a social system which refuses to become involved enough to educate the young as cyber as well as real citizens, in domains that really matter.


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