cartesian learning vs the hive

rereading the nicholas carr article ‘the web shatters focus, rewires brains’ (wired magazine, may 2010). it’s clear he’s worried about the bargain we’ve brokered with the internet, seemingly choosing to go with ‘skimming and multitasking’ at the expense of ‘reading and thinking deeply.’ weakening our capacity for ‘deep processing’ and turning us all into ‘shallow thinkers.’ he offers up plenty of studies demonstrating the plasticity of the brain and how quickly the tools we use come to define and determine our behaviours. hypertexting and linking are the biggest culprits, distracting us from traditional linear text reading and eventually leading to cognitive overload.

of course carr isn’t alone. a quick google search will return (amongst many others) maggie jackson’s ‘distracted: the erosion of attention and the coming dark age’ and mark bauerlein’s  ‘the dumbest generation: how the digital age stupifies young americans and jeopardises our future.’ it’s tempting to dismiss them all as conservative luddites but that would be oversimplifying the issue.

Larry Sanger has perhaps one of the best summaries of these arguments in his piece ‘individual knowledge in the internet age’ EDUCAUSE Review, vol 45, no. 2 (march/april 2010). he begins by asking do we need to memorise/know stuff/facts or do we just need the skills to find the stuff/facts when we need to? and if this is what we do is it really ‘knowing’ at all? is it the same as understanding? and of course we know it isn’t.

i like sanger’s philosophical context for exploring the issue. collaborative tools like wikis and blogs support ‘social learning’ while traditional ‘cartesian’ learning assumes that knowledge is something that can be transferred from a teacher to a student. he puts it this way: comparing the cartesian view that ‘i think, therefore i am’ to the social view of learning where ‘we participate, therefore we are’.

do we still value the western liberal arts ‘canon’ that formed the basis of education so far? history, literature, science, mathematics, the arts, philosophy… do we really want to let it go and rely on wikipedia? sanger cites another more provocative view, jaron larnier’s essay ‘digital maoism: the hazards of the new online collectivism’. larnier talks about he perils of ‘the hive mind’ and sanger agrees, fearing that instead of a society of liberally educated, critical thinkers we will end up with a society of drones, ‘hive minds’ and collectives without the learning and study skills that encourage ‘deep and independent thought’.

interesting stuff. i’ve set my next task as a closer reading (quietly and without interruption) of clay shirky’s reply to carr’s article ‘is google making us stupid’.

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