29 January 2007

Perils of the information age

At a weekend barbecue the conversation, while not stopping proceedings, briefly turned to the perils of letting young people succumb to the temptations of the internet and other technology. In today's Australian Alan Gold (perhaps he was at a similar function?) picks up on the topic and asks "where will this computer generation be if they have to figure out things for themselves"?

The omnipresent mobile phone, computer screen, Google, Internet Explorer and all the other gateways to the entirety of human knowledge are all wondrous developments and will be of great benefit to us all, but each is diluting this generation's self-reliance.Why seek the truth yourself, why climb to the top of the mountain to see the view, why spend hours in a musty library, and why speak to somebody person to person when you can do everything with a mobile phone or a search engine on the internet?

He has two children, of whom his daughter is still tolerably well-acquainted with a pre-internet society. His son, however, is a lost cause: when his in-car GPS malfunctions, the perplexed young man, rather than trying to find his own way home, rings his parents for directions.

As a society, we are becoming so reliant on suckling at the breast of the internet that we are in danger of becoming helpless in the face of adversity. In previous generations, the questions whose answers we needed to know often formed a broader inquiry that was satisfied by books. The very nature of a book seduces us into browsing, cross-referencing and flicking through pages in order to find sections or paragraphs. This enables the specific to be widened into the general: unexpected knowledge is gained and inquiry skills are learned. But because of the unearthly power of search engines, today's youth are led straight to the answer instead of contextualising question and answer as part of the richer and wider tapestry of knowledge.

Increasingly this generation is losing the joy of studying books, maps, papers or other non-electronic devices: they are missing the framework of reflection and the joys of browsing and inquiry on which our society has been built. One day they will have to learn the new adage that data isn't information, information isn't knowledge, and knowledge isn't wisdom. Previous generations learned to learn through trial and error, through research, through questions and uncovering the answers. Once, students had to be like Sherlock Holmes, observing and pondering and sifting through the evidence to find the answer; today, students are more selectors than detectors, and download the answers in the absence of clues.

I worry that the instant answers of the internet might lead to some sort of Darwinian devolution of our brains and rob future generations of developing those abilities that raised us above the animals in the first place. Because if we do devolve as a species through the loss of those abilities that helped us find our way out of Africa, how on earth will we navigate our way back?

While IMO Gold overstates his case to make his point he does make me think about the extent to which some (by no means all, at least among those of my acquaintance) people seemed to be hooked, beguiled, besotted or whatever by technology, so that the devices they embrace so avidly become their master. Of course I'm not like that... but I'd be interested in what others think.

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