Literacies: Old and New
Is Google making us stupid? Two years ago, Nick Carr made this controversial assertion in a magazine article; now, he has extended the argument in his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Mr. Carr presents considerable evidence that the networked, interactive nature of digital technologies scatters our attention and limits our ability to think deeply. Even more, he points to emerging evidence that access to computers leads to poor educational attainment. Concerned about the decline of books, he writes, “We need to be concerned about the digital divide, to be sure. But perhaps we should also be thinking about the Gutenberg divide.”
Of course computers and the Internet have an important role to play in education, not least because computer skills are increasingly important to economic opportunity and achievement. But it is a mistake to assume that modern technology is an educational panacea, particularly when it comes to helping poor kids close gaps in learning and achievement. Investing precious dollars in teachers, books, and classrooms—in the traditional foundations of education—may well produce greater returns than investing them in computer hardware and software.
Carr’s book is a reversal of the usual assumption that up-to-date technology makes its users ‘smarter’ and more sophisticated than people who rely on outdated forms of technology like books or other traditional technologies. But his argument is not free of the deep cultural prejudices that underpin simple oppositions between book culture, orality, and electronic textuality. In particular, by giving book culture the monopoly on ‘deep thinking’ Carr’s work certainly lacks a broader understanding of how communication and thought takes place in ‘continua’ of orality and literacy as well as through visual communication.
If we are concerned with shallow concepts of knowledge and culture, schools should organize arenas that discuss and prepare children to live in a world where newcomers and experts might all have a say about what counts as knowledge, yet there might still be common and agreed criteria to judge the truth and validity of statements. The grounds on which we are building a public culture is something that deserves deep and detailed consideration, that goes beyond individual tastes and dislikes –the logic that is privileged by mass media. Honestly, do we envisage this discussion happening on prime-time TV? Schools are still the best shot we have to produce a massive and thorough conversation on knowledge and culture.
I totally agree that we desperately need well-trained teachers and libraries, but also concede that we probably won’t see teachers trained, or libraries built and stocked for some time (if ever). Given this harsh reality, we must exploit the existing technologies that are in the hands of people. In answer to the question: Is a mobile phone in the hands of an impoverished student better or worse than no book at all? – my answer is absolutely yes.
In short, my conclusion of this whole debate, here and elsewhere, is: In the developed world, make education relevant to the children, and use ICT to help the teachers do their work. And outside school, computers and the Internet will make our children smarter, much smarter that we ever imagined. Which will obviously have an effect on their school grades, just as TV did for the generations before them. Obviously, being smart is not the same as being skilled or productive.
Every generation lives in a different world requiring new skills. It is up to the schools to make sure children also learn the practical skills they need to cope with the demands of society. And if society switches from horse riding to motorized transport, schools should prepare for a drivers license. It is pretty useless, then, to give cars to schools just to drive the children to horse-riding lessons. Often, ICT in schools is used like cars for taking children to horse riding, and then complaining the cars did not improve their horse riding.