the winter of our disconnect: chapter 5

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“Having too many facts at one’s fingertips ‘without proper instruction’ was dangerous, too, leading people to be ‘filled with conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom’.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

Chapter 5 of the book largely reviews the topic of multitasking: the theoretical pros and cons, the idea of younger generations surpassing their elders in this area and the issue of whether multitasking is even possible. Maushart’s children claim that they can easily complete homework while multitasking online with multiple active windows and conversations. Though this section covers both sides of the debate, Maushart sums up early on that “the fact is no one’s brain is different enough to make constant interruptions, distractions and task-switching an optimal environment in which to function. No one’s.” Neuroscientific research continues to show that there is no such thing as multitasking, but when it comes to task-switching children are actually worse than adults. The region of the brain that “toggles” is located in the anterior prefrontal cortex and is one of the regions that is “last to ripen” (p 159). Studies done by David E. Meyer, the director of the university of Michigan’s Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, show that Digital Natives took at least double the time to complete tasks when multitasking and their number of errors increased significantly.

Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, discusses how today’s youth “grow up interacting and collaborating, thinking and organizing, scrutinizing, having to remember things, managing information”, and that this affects the wiring of their brain. Though today’s media environment undoubtedly alters some functions, Tapscott’s claim that it alters the “actual wiring, synaptic connections and structure of kids’ brains” (p 146) is a bit of a stretch (especially considering he is not a scientist). Yes; they are great at seeking and gathering information, and their visual acuity (among other skills) surpasses their elders, but evolution clearly proves that there’s no way a definitive cognitive change such as an ability to multitask could occur from one generation to the next (or the next, or the next).

Media have also drastically changed since their first introduction. For example, Maushart remembers when watching TV “had not yet become the soundtrack for family life–the not-beautiful, not-useful wallpaper lining every household’s personal space; the visual cud on which the entire culture chewed” (p 145). Though I know quite a few people who opt out of cable or television including myself, I still find this poignant and relevant for the majority of situations. It’s as if we’ve been conditioned to only be able to pass X amount of minutes without “visual cud” before needing another hit. To further my point is this staggering fact: American teenagers spend 7.5 hours with media a day, and that number raises to 10.75 hours a day when assessing total exposure (separating times when more than one device was used).

Though this chapter largely discussed multitasking and a plethora of other facts and ideas not discussed in this entry, I also want to circle back to my introductory quote. I find the second part of this quote to be particularly interesting as I think it hits the nail on the head in terms of our personal wisdom–we have outsourced our knowledge, and our brains now serve as incredible indices for this information, knowing where and how to find things, but not knowing the things themselves. I am also consistently interested in the sheer amount of information in existence and our need for more of it. Maushart quotes Walter Ong on page 169, “We are captives of information, dangerously adrift in an information chaos that means nothing and takes us nowhere.” But I’m not sure we are adrift as much as we are paddling furiously toward some unforeseen shore. We’ve created a virtually (har har) boundless knowledge bank, yet we still seek to reach some optimal, yet undefinable, state of enlightenment.

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