Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Exercise your brain?

A recent discussion on the LITA listserv is my food for thought this week. It began by citing an op-ed column from the NY Times (tongue-in-cheek, I suspect):

“Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants – silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.”

The first respondent indicated that this “outsourcing” of information was seen “as being the antithesis of thinking, therefore it was less knowledge, not more.” Another talked about how the brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and deplored the technology-induced entropy of the brain. My first reaction to these discussions was to ask why we must create and control so much information that we need techno-crutches to survive? What purpose do they serve? If this “stuff” will help us live longer, make more money, and be more comfortable, then how much information is enough? How much is too much? But even these questions, for me, only scratch the surface of this issue. I prefer to take a step back and look at the context that encourages us to leave it all to technology.

“How may I serve you?”

Here in the US, the capitol of capitalism, we are asked this question, in all its myriad forms, dozens of times a day, both overtly and subtly. I’ve worked as a business customer service representative for a major telecommunications company, and was encouraged to greet each incoming call with, “How may I provide you with excellent service today?” Our kitchens abound with gadgets and tools just waiting at our beck and call to help us fix quick meals. Cable television waits in most homes to entertain, as does the Internet on our computers. GPS devices in our cars help us find our way to wherever we want to go. At the drive-thru or the restaurant we are asked, “May I take your order?” And at the bank, “How may I help you?” The roll of the librarian is a service-oriented role, though the level of knowledge required to be most effective does allow us to require a “masters” degree. Nonetheless, most of us in this technological society have a role to play serving one or groups, and being served or assisted by others, on and off the job.

The larger number of “servants” you can call upon, can direct and control, the more prosperity and power you are perceived to have. The more we can control in our lives, the safer (and happier?) we can be. As a recent beneficiary of arthroscopic knee surgery, I am exceedingly grateful for the ability to walk, bike, swim and sleep without pain anymore. Medical and related technologies have improved my quality of life above what my ancestors even dreamed of. Yet, why do we feel the need to have impersonal help with every aspect of our lives? What are we avoiding this way?

On a more personal note, I find it far too easy to "outsource" thinking. When I sit down to work at the computer, whatever answers I need are only a few keystrokes and/or mouse clicks away. As a graduate student, I am expected to have read and absorbed knowledge, and have it waiting and ready for class. But when I get to class, too often my mind is a blank, assuming that something outside me will provide contextual clues to help me know what to say or do next. And while I grew up with very little technology (beyond paper and pencil), I shudder to think how irrelevant traditional education must seem to students who have been served by technology all their lives. (If you haven't seen the YouTube video created by Michael Wesch and students at Kansas State University, take time now to see it.)

1 comment:

Mary Alice Ball said...

Interesting, Todd. Since I became a professor I have tried hard to create a classroom environment that invites participation and treats students as equals and colleagues. I have often felt that the majority of students would prefer the traditional classroom with superior professor and subordinate students, one controlling and the other pretending to be controlled in order to get a good grade. Why? Because it's comfortable.