Some years back one of my favorite pastimes was people watching in places with a steady flow of different faces and types. It started out as something to do on Tokyo trains and buses, a way of observing the manner and habits of a people new to my daily life. At the time there was something interesting in every other person my eyes happened to fall upon. Talking on the telephone with a friend recently, he mentioned that a couple of years ago he had stopped going to the corner café to chat over coffee with people from the neighborhood, explaining that it was now a different scene. His explanation could have been taken from my own mouth and described exactly what had ruined my pleasure in people watching on trains.
We could all quickly list the benefits that technology has brought us in recent years, and my own list would be lengthy—the last person on the block who could be labeled a Luddite. But there’s another side to the story. Look at the person over there; she’s face down in her phone texting someone. Look at the guy in the car next to you at a red light; he has a phone in his left hand and is gesturing to someone miles away. Watch out for the student on the bike, the one bobbing his head to music from his iPod and neither hearing nor seeing the traffic around him. Look at the four kids in the park all hunched on a bench hopelessly locked onto their Gameboys. Dinner with friends? Better repeat what you just said; Lisa is on her phone talking to someone at a different restaurant across town. A visitor from Mars might think the local Starbucks is a showroom for laptops and Bluetooth devices. You get the picture.
Staying connected is today’s top priority, and underneath that seems to lie an actual fear of suddenly being disconnected, of having to face the reality of a present tangible moment, to be however briefly completely on your own without cell towers, WiFi and Bluetooth. Is this condition a part of technology’s legacy? In fact, technology in the sense of a legacy has already had a profound effect on education and the process of ‘learning’ in schools and universities, and we who went through the process before the coming of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg need to take a careful look at how profoundly technology has changed education.
The minds of our technologically inclined younger generation work differently. With students today computer use and social networking are daily activities that have created an evolution in how they think. Like it or not, using a computer daily alters brain functions and thought processes. According to Gary Small in his book iBrain, a UCLA study shows that using online search engines trains the brain to create shortcuts for acquiring information. Does this mean that young students accustomed to finding information instantly are now less capable of storing that information in longterm memory? Doesn’t longterm memory come close to being the very definition of learning? Sounds like Google and their band of brothers are programming brains to acquire and store information on an ‘as needed’ basis only.
Back to the wildfire popularity of texting, consider how for young people today the understanding of written language is strikingly different. Brevity and abbreviation have become the operative mode, the 140 character post the standard form. Communication in the texting format has become a written form of the quick-cut editing prevalent in rock and hip hop music videos, fast being everything. Does this imply that schools and universities will soon be faced with the problem of finding ways to accommodate students with ever shrinking attention spans? With students whose habit has become communication via abbreviated texts, the idea of even a 500 word essay might seem gargantuan.
‘Textspeak’ has lately become common currency in papers handed in by university students, and there are students who use Facebook to communicate with teachers about class assignments. Many seem to think that examples like LOL, 4ever, the Gr8 Wall of China and 411 (for ‘information’) are acceptable forms in formal writing. In one study The Pew Research Center in Washington D.C. found that twenty-five percent of American teens use emoticons in schoolwork and that thirty-eight percent use texting short forms. One elementary school teacher reported that whenever one of his students heard something funny, he shouted out “LOL” as though it were a word—instead of laughing, vocalizing the idea with an abbreviation.
There is this however from the Pew Research Center: ‘Social media activities are associated with several beneficial social activities, including having discussion networks that are more likely to contain people from different backgrounds. For instance, frequent internet users, and those who maintain a blog are much more likely to confide in someone of another race. Those sharing photos online are more likely to discuss important matters with someone who is a member of another political party.’
Like it or not, technology is shaping a new kind of thought process in the minds of young people.