Growing Up Distracted

The New York Times has continued its "Your Brain On Computers" series with a piece on the digital distractions facing today's students: Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.

Speaking of distractions, here is how the story is presented in my browser. Can you find it?


The twitterati are already having conniptions over the article. Cue the breathless rebuttals from people who apparently didn't read it carefully. It's the next Zadie Smith/Facebook. (Example of that sort of rebuttal: Literary Writers and Social Media: A Response to Zadie Smith.)

Robot teachers are on the way

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today about robotic teachers. An excerpt:

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines
should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely
patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects
like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat
developmental problems like autism.

Several countries have been testing teaching machines in classrooms.
South Korea, known for its enthusiasm for technology, is “hiring”
hundreds of robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is
experimenting with robots that would teach English.

Already, these advances have stirred dystopian visions, along with the
sort of ethical debate usually confined to science fiction. “I worry
that if kids grow up being taught by robots and viewing technology as
the instructor,” said Mitchel Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten
group at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “they will
see it as the master.”

Most computer scientists reply that they have neither the intention, nor
the ability, to replace human teachers. The great hope for robots, said
Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain
Sciences at the University
of Washington, “is that with the right kind of technology at a
critical period in a child’s development, they could supplement learning
in the classroom.”

Link: Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot.

I don't think you can fault the individual computer scientists' intentions here, and it may well be that robots offer unique value in certain special situations like working with autistic children. But I have to agree with those who find this trend disturbing. I don't think Resnick's worry about seeing robots "as the master" is the worst problem. Our society values technology more than it values teachers. These robots aren't solving a problem that couldn't be solved better with people. And down the road it's not hard to see the day when cheap robots become much more than just a supplement.

To repeat a quote I posted 5 years ago:

the end, it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich
will get teachers."

Stephen Kindel, quoted by Todd Oppenheimer in The Flickering Mind: Saving Education From the False Promise of Technology.

What’s troubling about WolframAlpha

From an AP review (dated May 13) of WolframAlpha by Brian Bergstein:

In the interest of full
disclosure, I'll admit that I'm troubled by the potential for
WolframAlpha. I fear the implications of an information butler that is
considered so smart and so widely applicable that people turn to
it without question, by default, whenever they want to know something.

What's that, you say? We already have such a service?

for all the fears that Google is making us stupid by making it too easy
to look up information, at least Google and its rivals enable the
critical thinking that comes from scoping out multiple sources.

search engines that deliver links that match keywords in your query,
WolframAlpha is more of a black box. If you have it perform a
calculation, it gives you an answer, along with a small link for
"source information." Open that and you'll generally be told the data
was "curated"—found and verified—by the company behind WolframAlpha. In
other words, "trust us."

The site does suggest ways to
track down similar information from other sources, including government
statistics, proprietary databases, almanacs and the collaborative
encyclopedia Wikipedia. To confirm WolframAlpha's data I went a
suddenly old-fashioned route—through Web searches on Google and Yahoo.
I didn't find any errors, but taking that step made me wonder why I
didn't just use Google or Yahoo to begin with.

Link: Review: Flaws in Web's much-touted WolframAlpha.

Rory Litwin has posted similar comments at Library Juice: Wolfram Alpha: Bad Idea!

Dave Eggers Defends Print and Reading

Novelist Dave Eggers, in a speech excerpted in the New Yorker:

To any of you who are feeling down, and saying, “Oh, no one’s reading
anymore”: Walk into 826 on any afternoon. There are no screens there,
it’s all paper, it’s all students working shoulder to shoulder invested
in their work, writing down something, thinking their work might get
published. They put it all on the page, and they think, “Well, if this
person who works next to me cares so much about what I’m writing, and
they’re going to publish it in their next anthology or newspaper or
whatever, then I’m going to invest so much more in it.” And then
meanwhile, they’re reading more than I did at their age. …

Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power
of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it,
fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down.
I actually have established an e-mail address,—if
you want to take it down—if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever
despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or
books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s
will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes
out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.

Link: Dave Eggers will prove you wrong (The New Yorker via MobyLives).

"826" is 826 National, a fantastic nonprofit that runs writing and tutoring centers for kids. Eggers was being honored for the project at this event.

Twitter on the primary school curriculum

From the you've-gotta-be-kidding department (aka is it April Fools already?): The Guardian reports that a new plan for the UK school curriculum will add twitter and Wikipedia and drop the requirement to study Victorian history and WWII. Excerpt:

Children will no longer have to study the Victorians or the second
world war under proposals to overhaul the primary school curriculum,
the Guardian has learned.

However, the draft plans will require children to master Twitter and Wikipedia and give teachers far more freedom to decide what youngsters should be concentrating on in classes.

proposed curriculum, which would mark the biggest change to primary
schooling in a decade, strips away hundreds of specifications about the
scientific, geographical and historical knowledge pupils must
accumulate before they are 11 to allow schools greater flexibility in what they teach.

emphasises traditional areas of learning – including phonics, the
chronology of history and mental arithmetic – but includes more modern
media and web-based skills as well as a greater focus on environmental

The plans have been drawn up by Sir Jim Rose, the
former Ofsted chief who was appointed by ministers to overhaul the
primary school curriculum, and are due to be published next month.

Link: Pupils to study Twitter and blogs in primary shake-up.

See also BBC: Pupils "should study Twitter".

Is twitter really that hard to learn? From personal experience, I'd say: Hard to learn? no. Hard to understand the point of? maybe.

I signed up recently (karthur), mostly because it seems like a lot of interesting people whose blogs I read are now posting there instead (particularly in the design/UX world I follow for work-related stuff). I don't know if I'll start tweeting much myself.

The experience has been interesting so far, and slightly useful. It's a quicker way to keep up with the buzz in the webosphere than by trying to follow the 300+ blogs I've subscribed to in Google Reader. I feel like I'd have to be constantly connected to really get it, though, instead of just reading it once or twice a day like I'm doing. The format is a little unfriendly — so many blind tiny-urls!

Tech terms push out nature terms in kids’ dictionary

Some Canadians are upset that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, a sort of practice dictionary for seven-year-olds, has dropped several words from nature in favor of tech terms. From the Canadian Press:

VANCOUVER — A B.C. environmental group is
flabbergasted that the publisher of the Oxford Junior Dictionary has
sent words like “beaver” and “dandelion” the way of the dodo bird.

In the latest version of its dictionary for schoolchildren, Oxford
University Press has cut nature terms such as heron, magpie, otter,
acorn, clover, ivy, sycamore, willow and blackberry.

In their place, the university publishing house has substituted
more modern terms, like the electronic Blackberry, blog, MP3 player,
voicemail and broadband.

Canadian wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman, whose
Get to Know Program has been inspiring children to go outdoors and “get
to know” their wild neighbours for more than a decade, said the
decision is telling kids that nature just isn't that important.

“This is another nail in the coffin of human beings being
acquainted with nature,” Mr. Bateman said in an interview with The
Canadian Press.

“If you can't name things, how can you love them? And if you don't
love them, then you're not going to care a hoot about protecting them
or voting for issues that would protect them.”


“I don't want to sound like an old you-know-what, but I have a
feeling that quite a number of decisions are made by 20-somethings or
30-somethings,” he said. “There are a whole bunch of them out there who
were raised on Saturday morning cartoons and video games and not out in

Mr. Bateman plans to fire off a letter to the university press brass in protest.

“I find it frightening what is happening, that people are losing a connection with nature,” he said.

Link: Nature lovers livid as 'blog' replaces 'beaver' in Oxford's junior dictionary.

I think the uproar is a bit silly, but still… broadband? Blackberry?

The photo of blackberries (the old-fashioned kind) is from

Lewis Lapham on the humanities in a technological age

This is from Lewis Lapham's preamble in the current issue of Lapham's Quarterly. The theme of the issue is Ways of Learning.

From time to time in the scholarly journals and the
alumni magazines I come across articles that might as well be entitled
“What in God’s Name Are the Humanities, and Why Are They of Any Use to
Us Here in the Bright Blue Technological Wonder of the 21st Century?”
The question suggests that within the circles of informed academic
opinion the authorities construe the humanities as exquisite ornaments,
meant to be preserved, together with the banknotes and the jewels, in
the vaults of the university’s endowment—an acquaintance with the
liberal arts one of those proper appearances that must be kept up,
together with the house in Southampton and the season’s subscription to
the Metropolitan Opera. Apparently content to believe that man’s
machines have vanquished nature, subjugated the tribes of Paleolithic
instinct, and put an end to history, the oracles in residence walk to
and fro among the old trees sold to the alumni as naming opportunities,
speaking of tenure and tables of organization, of Rembrandt’s drawings
and Shakespeare’s plays as pheasants under glass. Their piety recalls
the lines of Archibald MacLeish:

Freedom that was a thing to use
They made a thing to save
And staked it in and fenced it round
Like a dead man’s grave.

bury the humanities in the tombs of precious marble is to fail the quiz
on what constitutes a decent American education. Like the sorcerer’s
apprentice, our technologists produce continuously improved means
toward increasingly ill-defined ends; we have acquired a great many new
weapons and information systems, but we don’t know at what or at whom
to point the digital enhancements. Unless the executive sciences look
for advice and consent to the senate of the humanities, we stand a
better than even chance of murdering ourselves with our own toys. Not
to do so is to make a mistake that is both stupid and ahistorical.

Link: Playing with fire.

Nick Carr’s sources for “Is Google making us stupid?”

Nick Carr has posted a comprehensive list of sources and related readings for his Atlantic piece "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" This is excellent and worth digging into: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?": sources and notes.

As I wrote before, I think the key question is whether there is scientific evidence for these effects or not — and Carr references one study and a book (Proust and the Squid) that claim such evidence. That's the most powerful part of Carr's article, in my opinion, and I haven't seen a rebuttal that doesn't ignore it (and thus fail as a rebuttal) — to wit, the bloviating, er, debate about this article that continues at The Edge and other such forums.