I wrote it before I read New York Times executive editor and parent Bill Keller’s stylish dismissal of social media, but “Hawk drama (& human drama) in the digital age” would’ve been my response. It was about how we really need to think about “the observer effect” on both the experiment (red-tailed hawks, or youth in social media) and the observer (people at the viewer end of the “hawk cam,” or parents). Interestingly, the New York Times plays a role in both experiments on micro and macro levels. On the micro end, the Times supplied 1) the hawk cam outside the office of Columbia University’s president (the one that seemed to create all kinds of drama when it was actually its users – the humans, not the hawks and not the camera – who did), and 2) in Bill Keller, a parent who just allowed his 13-year-old daughter to join Facebook. Apparently marking the occasion with “The Twitter Trap,” Keller unfortunately started his family’s own piece of the social-media experiment as did so many parents before him, with the default parental hand-wringing.
‘Doers, not whiners’
A much more direct response came from Duke University professor Cathy Davidson, author of the forthcoming book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn:
Please, Mr. Keller. We need you. We need you and Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle … and all the other brilliant intellectual leaders you cite to stop whining and start thinking about how we can remake and redesign our habits and practices, our schools and workplaces, for the world we inhabit now – not the one that some of us, of a certain age, were born into. The world has changed. We have changed. Like Jefferson and Adams, we need to think about what we need to maximize the opportunities of the world we live in, not the old one we remember.
Davidson referred to Jefferson and Adams because they too engaged in some hand-wringing as they worried whether books in the hands of the “rabble” would lead to anarchy right when they were trying to establish representative democracy. However, “being doers, not whiners” they “in different ways, set about thinking what institutions needed to change if, in fact, a new technology had put books into people’s hands for the first time. They thought about public schooling, for example, since you needed not only to educate people to read but to educate them in how to read wisely and sanely.”
Enlist our kids’ help
So, Mr. Keller, do you think parents and school officials could be a teeny bit more nuanced in their thinking – instead of endlessly asking whether or not today’s media are social or antisocial, ask our kids how they’re using them? Ask our kids for their views on how we might all use them “wisely and sanely”? But ask them open-mindedly and -heartedly? (They are excellent sincerity detectors.)
As in her forthcoming book on brain science and learning, Davidson writes that this “learning organism … is constantly changed by its environment, by what it experiences, by its interactions,” and “if we give it a steady stream of ‘Jersey Shore’ … [or] item-response multiple choice testing … [or] idiotic things online…. [Or] if we inspire ourselves to curiosity, expose ourselves to challenges and then succeed and reinforce our ability to take challenges, our brain learns how to extrapolate from challenges…. Our brain is what it does.”
Minds, hearts open or closed?
And here’s the conclusion I wish all parents and educators could read: “But that’s not about technology…. Between the human brain and the computer screen, comes us – our will, our desires, our habits, our training, our work, our incentives, our motivations, all of the things that make us human.” So should we maybe train the scrutiny on humanity – our treatment of self and others, our parenting, teaching, values modeling, social norms, etc. – instead of digging ourselves deeper into an unproductive funk of lamentation, fear, blame, disdain? Actually, the Internet is affording us a prime opportunity for a course change for the better.
Then we read statements like this from Bill Keller, who sounds like a latter-day Jefferson worrying about “the rabble”: “Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and ‘Real Housewives’.” A deliciously sarcastic reference to new media in which Keller sounds a lot like, not just Adams or Jefferson, but also a concerned Socrates. Last year, in Keller’s paper, author Jonah Lehrer reviewed Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, writing that, “in the ‘Phaedrus,’ [Socrates] lamented the invention of books, which ‘create forgetfulness’ in the soul. Instead of remembering for themselves, Socrates warned, new readers were blindly trusting in ‘external written characters.’ The library was ruining the mind.” Perhaps Keller skipped the review and just read the book. More modern examples of this tiresome angst were the 90 minutes PBS Frontline devoted to it last year (see this) and the Kaiser Foundation study on youth and media (and this).
Little experiments, big improvement
But if we’re worried, for heaven’s sake, let’s do something about it! Could we stop worrying long enough to think straight – to get to consensus that, as Davidson puts it, the issue is not the technology but us? THEN get on with figuring out together how to use the tech mindfully and successfully? This doesn’t have to be daunting. It can start with an ongoing but not excessive and open-hearted conversation between a parent and child or the creative work of a teacher like “Anna C” (see this). These little experiments in positive uses of social media are just as ubiquitous as the angst about it is. We get to choose which we expose our (and our children’s) brains to, choose which approach will benefit our kids’ futures more. I so hope parents and educators will go with Davidson’s view, not Keller’s. It’s the worry, not the technology, that’s the time-waster!
* A great example of how to get on with thinking – really thinking – and moving forward positively in and with today’s media and technologies is Australia’s about-to-launch, multimillion-dollar Cooperative Research Centre for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing, led by the Inspire Foundation (here’s the Centre’s Facebook page).
* “Kids Are Learning … Just Not in Ways We Want Them To,” with video interviews with researchers Mizuko Ito, Constance Steinkuehler, danah boyd, and Henry Jenkins
* “The new media monsters we’ve created for our kids” and “New media monsters II”
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth,” which we published back in mid-2009