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Last summer, over in the related (but, at the moment anyway, sadly quiescent) space called Digital Geneseo, I posted a link to the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's June 10, 2010 New York Times op-ed, "Mind over Mass Media". I thought I'd re-link to it here in light of some our recent readings and as a counterpoint to the general tenor of the PBS Frontline documentary, Digital Nation.

Best bits:

As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, [media critics] assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

[...]

The solution [to the new distractions presented by technology] is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

[...]

It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

8 Comments

  1. Unknown User (mam34)

    I like that first bit, about primitive peoples eating fierce animals to be fierce. Nowadays, we tend look back with a sort of chuckle, like, "oh hay, silly older peoples, that's not how it worked", while at the same time complaining that newer "magics" are changing the way our brain work. Cognitive dissonance? It's at least a little hypocritical, at that.

    1. Unknown User (mpv4)

      Haha, Meghan, I don't think that that's cognitive dissonance. That's when your beliefs and attitudes aren't in sync, so you feel distressed.

      1. Unknown User (mam34)

        Iunno... maybe if people thought on that point a little more, there would be some cognitive dissonance, then. There should be, I think.

        1. Unknown User (mpv4)

          It just sounds, to me at least, like people are rooted in their time period. It's rare for someone to be able to look objectively at their own life and say that our newer "magics" are ridiculous when we do not have a body of literature, public opinion, or the luxury of hindsight to support that notion, whereas we do have all of them when we look at rituals or beliefs from hundreds of years ago. In time, I'm sure that our beliefs about certain things will be taken as ridiculous (the use of video games by children, perhaps?), but, for now, we are so rooted in our own culture and, more importantly, our own time period, which is neither good nor bad, that we do not have the ability to look objectively at the entirety of the human experience. In 2111 our future generations will look at our actions and judge, just like we judge our ancestors. But if we simply judge ourselves, we're not making any progress. I think it would be a wiser use of our time to plan our future actions and work with what we have, instead of making projections about the future or sweeping assumptions. That's my take on it at least.

        2. Unknown User (mpv4)

          It just sounds, to me at least, like people are rooted in their time period. It's rare for someone to be able to look objectively at their own life and say that our newer "magics" are ridiculous when we do not have a body of literature, public opinion, or the luxury of hindsight to support that notion, whereas we do have all of them when we look at rituals or beliefs from hundreds of years ago. In time, I'm sure that our beliefs about certain things will be taken as ridiculous (the use of video games by children, perhaps?), but, for now, we are so rooted in our own culture and, more importantly, our own time period, which is neither good nor bad, that we do not have the ability to look objectively at the entirety of the human experience. In 2111 our future generations will look at our actions and judge, just like we judge our ancestors. But if we simply judge ourselves, we're not making any progress. I think it would be a wiser use of our time to plan our future actions and work with what we have, instead of making projections about the future or sweeping assumptions. That's my take on it at least.

  2. Unknown User (dmb21)

    I really appreciate Pinker's second comment: "The solution [to the new distractions presented by technology] is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour."

    I,personally, truly believe that my time off my computer and TV is worthwhile and I try to preserve that time every day. If there are 3 types of time, wasted, productive, and leisure, productive and wasted too often lump together in time that should be leisurely. I often write a lot of my papers out by hand and then type them, and when I'm doing problem sets my computer isn't on. I learn a lot more things and seem to enjoy my time a lot more when I am not staring at my screen. Don't get me wrong, I use Facebook, I read two blogs, I check out articles, and I watch episodes I missed on TV. And I believe that a lot of people really enjoy their Internet usage, and all power to you, but I love the sentiment of Pinker's self-control. 

    1. Unknown User (mpv4)

      Danielle,
      That was a really good point you made, about cherishing the time we have. It's refreshing to see someone who can enjoy her time without trying to accomplish everything at once. I am actually quite envious of your ability to separate time like that. I always try to do so much at once that I end up not accomplishing anything. I think I will try to take a leaf out of your book and disconnect more often, at least from those sources of distraction.

      1. Unknown User (dmb21)

        Michael, 

        I know exactly what you mean!! To be honest I struggle to stay off Facebook and youtube.com when frustrated with work or math but I know the incredible benefits that technology add to my life, like zappos.com.