Tuesday, 7 April 2009

This blog is damaging your brain!

Well, I hope that it's not, but I was very interested to hear Lady Greenfield's concerns about social networking as expressed to the House of Lords recently. There's a summary and just over four minutes of audio here:

I share some of these reservations: the amount of time that our students spend on Facebook is quite terrifying. Concentration spans can be affected, and sometimes students seem unable to deal with reading that isn't delivered in small chunks, in the style of brief updates and short reports. Furthermore, much of their Facebook activity seems to revolve around presenting the appearance of a life full of friends, events and screenloads of personality - even when they may be struggling to keep up with work or puzzle out exactly who they are and what they really want. It is also the case that the facile nature of online 'friendship' can be both more attractive and ultimately less rewarding than the real thing, worked out through all the awkward and immediate interactions of people without a keyboard in front of them.

Yet the assumptions that Greenfield makes seem quite odd to me; some of her concerns spring from a view of society which imagines ideal people and then castigates those who don't live up to it. Most of us respond to the 'immediate pleasure' of activities; we do not always choose to live life on the basis that something might be tedious or unpleasant now but will pay off later. We drink with friends because we're having a good time now; we don't consider tomorrow's hangover until it arrives. We eat the fantastically unhealthy meal at a restaurant now, because we enjoy it; we worry about not fitting into our jeans later. Even reading gives the immediate pleasure of disappearing into the world of the novel, and of finding out what happens: we read on, even if we should really be washing the dishes/doing the laundry/mopping the floor so we can feel good later on about having finished the housework. (And no, I don't want to find out about the princess herself! Really! This is not the point of all reading.) Enjoyment now often takes priority over imagined enjoyment at some point in the future. Greenfield's assumption that normal (or current) human behaviour systematically pays attention to the long-term consequences of our actions is simply unrealistic. Social networking addiction is just another instant pleasure to add to the list. Delayed gratification is a hard-won thing, not something that's built into our automatic responses. I can't see how our brains would need to operate differently to accommodate screen-based immediate reward rather than any other kind.

As for the supposed loss of empathy and loss of identity, this also seems misdirected to me. Much social networking is directed primarily towards telling others how the individual feels, and expressions of support, sympathy and encouragement often seem more easily expressed online. The people I've observed online seem far from losing a sense of 'where they themselves finish and the outside world begins'; rather they are both creating positive identity markers for themselves and shaping spaces for themselves within the online world that interact in various (sometimes very sophisticated) ways with the outside world. A person who has developed an identity online is more aware of who they are, not less. The danger, as I touched on above, is that there is a forced separation between a happy, successful online personality and a 'real-life' person who is isolated and miserable. But this is not what Greenfield seems to be worried about.

Having read this back through, I conclude that I appear to be more positive about social networking than I had previously thought! So there you are: blogging is also a learning experience, helping us to work through what our opinions really are as we put them into writing. And I don't think my brain has changed or rotted just yet.

What to study or how to learn?

Now this is really interesting:

There are things about this that really make me cheer: the suggestion that children would actually learn 'the chronology of history' sounds great - at least if it were to improve upon the current state of affairs. If I have to explain what happened in 1066 one more time... The removal of repetition in the curriculum is also heartily to be welcomed.

On the other hand, I'm somewhat perturbed at the idea that pupils will actually study things like health and wellbeing. Surely this belongs in areas of their lives other than the classroom? It's a little like the suggestion that universities are trying to turn out 'good citizens' - i.e. people who are what the state wants them to be. Universities should be trying to turn out strong, independently-minded individuals who can question and challenge the state on an intellectual basis and help it to continue to develop, change and respond. What else is education for?

As for studying Twitter and Wikipedia, that's actually quite funny; these days the average toddler can probably tweet before s/he can write! I suppose they may be able to help the teachers keep their skills up-to-date, though... For academics, it would mark as utterly futile all our attempts to emphasise the contingency of Wikipedia - and this is a more serious consideration. Web collaboration and shared knowledge is one thing; endlessly open access at a speed and extent beyond what can be constantly monitored and and moderated is another. Perhaps once again the solution is to think differently about learning; what pupils should actually be taught at this early age is how to check and verify information; one source is never enough, and a single claim is never reliable.

Just because you're paranoid...

Having had a lot of discussions about privacy and public spaces online and work/life boundaries, I have to say that the following news did little to allay my suspicious nature when it comes to putting myself on the web:


The theory, of course, is that such government access to social networking sites will only be used to track people who have already done something deserving of suspicion. The problem is that any legislation is only as waterproof and reliable as the government who enforce it.

Perhaps I should just face up to the fact that most of what I do is already recorded in some way or another, and concentrate on taking control of that record; at least we can shape the way we appear online, even if we can't stop others recording it for security/posterity/sheer downright intrusiveness! Hence blogging, I suppose. Hello world, here are my opinions on a few very selective areas: off you go and have a good read. Enjoy!