Potential for a Bi-Literate Brain

The web was born around 25 years ago, and I’ll bet that not long after that researchers began studying how being online changes the human mind. With reports that often included dire warnings.

This recent study is no exception.

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

Is that something to be alarmed about? Is a “digital brain”, one that has adapted to manage a “torrent” of online information, really all that bad?

I can accept that the process of reading material in analog form is very different from reading a hyperlinked document on a screen. But is one format better than the other? If the “brain is constantly adapting” can’t it learn techniques to do both well?

Our history seems to indicate we can.

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

I’ll bet those first examples of written language were not Moby Dick-length novels. Probably more like Twitter-length messages. In fact, it’s only been within the past few centuries that a majority of people in western cultures could even read at all. Prior to that printed materials of any length were usually only consumed by certain educated classes.

Anyway, I’m not sure the work of one researcher with a forthcoming book that “will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain” is reason to panic. In fact, the writer of this article ends with exactly the right approach.

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.

Permissionless Innovation

Last Wednesday was the 25th anniversary of the world wide web. Or at least March 12, 1989 was the date Tim Berners Lee published his proposal describing the concepts behind the web. Ok, any excuse for a celebration.

At first the Guardian article 25 things you might not know about the web on its 25th birthday looks like just another x-number-of-stuff list tied to the anniversary. But it’s actually a very good overview/opinion piece about why the web has become so powerful in its relatively short lifespan. And why it’s important to fight back against the many corporations who want to limit and restrict that power.

That thing number 3 is especially important.

The importance of having a network that is free and open. The internet was created by government and runs on open source software. Nobody “owns” it. Yet on this “free” foundation, colossal enterprises and fortunes have been built — a fact that the neoliberal fanatics who run internet companies often seem to forget. Berners-Lee could have been as rich as Croesus if he had viewed the web as a commercial opportunity. But he didn’t — he persuaded Cern that it should be given to the world as a free resource. So the web in its turn became, like the internet, a platform for permissionless innovation. That’s why a Harvard undergraduate was able to launch Facebook on the back of the web. [emphasis mine]

I love that phrase “permissionless innovation”. It’s the true power of the web, covering work done by the developers of the software behind this site, Twitter, RSS, Evernote, and all the other web-based resources that I and many others use every day. Just the fact that anyone can throw up a blog like this one without filing a bunch of official forms and for only pocket change is amazing.1

It’s also a concept we should be teaching our students, although the concept of kids doing something on the web and not asking permission is one that really, really scares a lot of people.

What You Don’t Know, Can Hurt You

You’ve probably never heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – and that’s by design. TPP is “is a secretive, multi-national trade agreement that threatens to extend restrictive intellectual property (IP) laws across the globe and rewrite international rules on its enforcement.”

The governments involved, and the hundreds of corporations who are helping to write the provisions, want us to know as little as possible before it becomes law.

Fortunately, enough information about the contents has leaked to offer a good, if very chilling, picture of how the package “would have extensive negative ramifications for users’ freedom of speech, right to privacy and due process, and hinder peoples’ abilities to innovate.”

Because supporters of TPP are worried about the backlash that would result if more people had a good look at the provisions, they are pushing Congress to pass a “fast track” bill for this and similar trade agreements.

If passed, the “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act” would give over to the executive branch much of the exclusive constitutional authority over trade policy that Congress is supposed to exercise. Sponsors of the bill claim that this process “provides greater transparency and gives Congress greater oversight of the Administration’s trade negotiations.” But in fact, fast track does precisely the opposite, ensuring that there’s even less transparency and less democratic oversight over trade negotiations, while making it easier for Big Content to impose its wish list of draconian copyright provisions on the US and its trading partners through secretive trade pacts.

Read the facts that are known about TPP and the efforts to force it’s provisions into American law. Then join the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups in demanding that Congress “stand up for your digital rights and preserve our constitutional checks and balances in government.”

The Myth of Digital Natives

A recent edition of the PBS Idea Channel 2 does a nice job of exploring the question Do “Digital Natives” Exist?.

I’ve never liked the digital native/digital immigrant concept.2 As the presenter points out, it presumes that people are born with some innate knowledge of how to work external devices, which makes no more sense than a newborn understanding how to speak a language.

Everyone learns as they grow and develop through life, and kids3 just have more time, opportunity, and motivation to figure out stuff like Facebook and iPads than most adults do.

However, for too many educators, the whole native/immigrant myth actually gets in the way of them learning to make better use of technology in their professional practice (and sometimes offers an easy excuse to skip it altogether).

Anyway, watch the video (the topic only covers the first 5-1/2 minutes of the program) and see what you think.

Better yet, show it to someone who thinks they’re an immigrant.

Calvin on Change in the New Year

The eternally wise and funny Bill Watterson speaking through his pint sized cartoon creation on the subject of change:

I hate change! It’s too disruptive! When things are different, you have to think about the change and deal with it! I like things to stay the same so I can take everything for granted!

Besides, things keep changing for the worse! The longer I live the more complicated everything gets! I say let’s stop here before life get any harder!

From now on, no more change!

Too many people in our education system have adopted that philosophy as their own.

I’d rather work with those who, like Calvin, get bored and go looking for change despite the uncertainty, effort, and complications.