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What are we thinking? Cognition and attention in the digital age

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Maggie Jackson | 09:18 UK time, Tuesday, 29 September 2009

(Maggie Jackson is an award-winning columnist and an author. She blogs, lectures and writes largely about the social impact of technology on our lives. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Maggie's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

Who are we becoming in the digital age? Don't look to your cell phone or laptop for answers.

To probe this question, we need to consider a much broader landscape than the gadgets that we now hold near and dear - and look to as cognitive appendages.  Instead, turn back the clock a century, even two, and you'll already begin to see a world of shattered distance, virtual relations, mediated experience. I once stumbled upon a riveting novel called Wired Love about virtual relations - published in 1880. The book fictionalized the affairs of telegraph operators, falling in love in code. Long ago, the advent of the railroad, car, jet, telegraph, telephone and camera seeded the vast changes in human experience of time and space that we grapple with today. As Jeremy Rifkin once observed, "the greatest turning points in human history are often triggered by changing conceptions of time and space."

As a result, we now live in a world of 24/7 living, bountiful multitasking, and portable relations and thought. The cultural geographer Yi-fu Tuan describes place as a 'realm of pause' and space as a 'canvas for movement.' We now inhabit space - a boundary-less, ever-shifting domain of simultaneity. The brain is plastic, and so is this age. And that's good.

Still, I'm worried. These digital age wonders will be squandered if we can't think critically, research well, and evaluate the data-floods we now have at our fingertips - and these are precisely the skills alarmingly lacking among both digital natives and older generations. Half of college students can't judge the objectivity of a website. Workers now switch tasks every three minutes, half the time interrupting themselves. As David Nicholas points out, we spend our time online 'power-bouncing' from info-snippet to data-point. And this propensity to rely on point-and-click, first-up-on-Google answers, along with our growing unwillingness to wrestle uncomfortably with nuances or uncertainties, keeps us stuck on the surface of the 'information' age. We're too often sacrificing depth for breadth in the ways we make sense of the world.

Yes, we've always had 'power bouncing' and distraction. And surfing or multitasking may have an important place in 21st-century society as strategies of learning. But going forward, we need to do much more than hopscotch across the web, split-focused and pulled this way and that by choice distractions. We cannot mistake fragmented, diffused attention as avenues of higher thought. Instead, we need to do better at cultivating - perhaps resuscitating? - deep focus, keen awareness and meta-cognitive 'executive' attention - the skills crucial to creativity and problem-solving.

Where to start? If we can 'green' the earth, we can clean up our noisy, interrupt-driven environment, in part by setting times and spaces for focus and reflection. Science now tells us that attention can be trained - so let's start teaching these skills to our kids. If we can control and hone our powers of attention, then the real question before us in this confounding, alluring digital age won't be "who are we?", as much as  "who do we want to be?"


  • Comment number 1.

    The question isn't really about "Who are we?" or "Who do we want to be?". The question is: "WHAT CAN WE DO TO SHOW HOW WE'RE EVOLVING AND WHAT ACTIONS WE'RE TAKING" on diverse issues ranging from the awareness on climate change, education equivalence, eradication of diseases in developing economies until they're on a par with developed economies, distribution of wealth and responsibility between state-corporation-community-citizens.

    I'll return to two of my favorite words: CONTEXTUALIZATION and CONSEQUENTIALITY.

    College students can't gauge the objectivity of websites because tools like 5-star rating systems are, frankly, DEFICIENT. That's an entire onion layer of knowledge missing right there.

    So the challenge is for people who can code, e.g. the likes of me, to imagine and develop smarter alternatives that help guide content consumers towards more relevant and higher quality content via CONTEXTUALIZATION tools.

    Don't worry, I have all kinds of C's --- not just concentration --- in my sights. It's just one but not the only constituent requisite in a truly conscious society. Other constituents would be the likes of culture, creativity and coherence (aka holisticism).

    Anyway, for now what we do is build upon the content, implement semantic web stack methodologies to structure the data better, work towards smarter contextualization tools (which includes cultural, perceptual, values). Eventually, we reach a point beyond the Semantic Web where we converge towards.........THE CONSCIOUS WEB.

    This is a web in which we can concentrate on collaboratively solving those major common issues. For me, the Conscious Web isn't really about artificial bots taking over the world and creating a Skynet. It's more about a Net in which HUMANS can access and utilize the content to foster constructive society.

    The good news is, as I already noted previously, that "point-and-click, first-up-on-Google" practice will become increasingly redundant because we're progressing towards SEMANTIC connections between content and not pure statistical ones which are less accurate and cause us to compensate for their limitations by super-clicking even faster through links.

    Within the next two years, we should expect to see content links being fed to us via semantics and via crowd-sourcing that's a lot more accurate so that WE ACTUALLY FOCUS ON THE CONTENT rather than click through in search of others.

    The consequentiality aspect arises here: at the moment, none of us knows what the carbon footprint of an entire range of products we consume is. This makes it near impossible for us to gauge the trade-offs for the planet of that plastic bottle of water we just drank.

    Code-wise, it's doable and it's possible that what's happening in Cloud Computing might accelerate this --- if companies share competitive and consumer information in a smarter way.

    On a smaller-scale level, the likes of debategraph definitely show consequentiality functions:

    * https://debategraph.org/Stream.aspx?nID=28176

    As for the contextualization tools. well......"Watch this space," as they say.

  • Comment number 2.

    Is there a contradiction here? Maggie Jackson implies it is the new digital age that is causing lack of deep thought then makes this statement:

    "These digital age wonders will be squandered if we can't think critically, research well, and evaluate the data-floods we now have at our fingertips - and these are precisely the skills alarmingly lacking among both digital natives and older generations."

    I was under the impression it was precisely the 'older generation' like myself who, according to Nicolas Carr, David Nicholas and Maggie Jackson's earlier blogs, grew up learning the skills needed to become focused deep thinkers.

    Am I alone in finding this item rather biased in concentrating on a niche section of technical savvy users in Society. There are millions of ordinary people who's daily working lives denies them the opportunity to techno-multi-task. Factory production line workers, teachers, agricultural workers, dentists, chefs, nurses, supermarket staff, oil rig crews. All of whom we rely on to keep us fed, watered, healthy and mobile. Their online time is restricted and it is the life skills they have from their off-line world that, I surmise, will be mostly applied in using the technology. Believe me there is ample time for reflection and supposition whilst on an 8 hour food production line hand flipping pastry lids onto meat pies.

    Again, I return to the idea of putting technology into the hands of the very young. If Maggie Jackson's wishes are to be realised then education on the appropriate use of the web's resources must run parallel to the infant schoolchild using pen, paper and books. A state of the art upgradable computer (and from personal preference it would be an intel Mac) with appropriate software, plus the ability of the teacher to use it, is an equal tool in the classroom. The emphasis is on equal.

    It remains my belief is that we cannot learn the powers of reflective analysis, contemplation and the shear joy of discovery without all the means appropriate to our individual learning styles.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think it may take more than "putting technology into the hands of the very young."

    From the link above: 'college students can't judge the objectivity of a website' which leads to the PDF: 'Testing Information Literacy in Digital Environments: ETS’s iSkills Assessment'


    "Owing to the 2005 and 2006 testing of more than ten thousand students, there is now evidence consistent with anecdotal reports of students’ difficulty with ICT literacy despite their technical prowess.

    The results reflect poor ICT literacy performance not only by students within one institution, but across the participating sixty-three high schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities. "

    "This confluence of information and technology directly reflects the “new illiteracy” concerns of educators: students quickly adopt new technology, but do not similarly acquire skills for being critical consumers and ethical producers of information (Rockman 2002)."

    "College students who grew up with the Internet (the “Net Generation”) might be impressively technologically literate, more accepting of new technology, and more technically facile than their parents and instructors (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005).

    However, anecdotally and in small-scale studies, there is increasing evidence that students do not use technology effectively when they conduct research or communicate (Rockman 2004). Many educators believe that students today are less information savvy than earlier generations despite having powerful information tools at their disposal (Breivik 2005)."

    I realize comments are driven by the choice of blog topic, but this discussion (over several blog posts) has become a central (if not the central) theme of DigRev; at least here on the blog.

  • Comment number 4.

    I've already written about the concept of tech tools being like fishing rods rather than some social panacea or replacement for real space interactions and learning, so Maggie Jackson's conclusion about asking ourselves about how best to teach those fishing skills to children is a perfectly valid one.

    Ultimately this topic on concentration directs us back to what EnglishFolkFan, SheffTim, TaiwanChallenges and others have raised before:

    (1.) MBTI profiles affecting the way we learn, retain, transform and evolve knowledge.

    (2.) Digital divide between the knowledge savvy and knowledge deficient.

    (3.) Romanticized nostalgia about an era of book-learning and literacy levels.

    The actuality is that the technology and the Web is doing more to democratize learning than previous generations.


    Well, in olden days only rich or middle class intelligentsia families had access to books. Education in the UK was NOT free until the Education Act of 1891 which was a century AFTER the Enlightenment era. Even with the advent of free education, most children still left school aged about 10 with poor literacy. The compulsory age for school-leavers to be 16 was only introduced from 1973. In 1974, the PC became available on the commercial market.

    Moreover, since the information on literacy rates is patchy up to 1988 --- primarily because there was no National Curriculum, which made it compulsory for schools to teach certain subjects and adopt a uniformity in terms of tests and standards, plus because of the disruptions of WWII as well as the changeovers from grammar school to comprehensive school structures --- it can be something of an exercise in comparing APPLES WITH PEARS when reports try to attribute falls / increases in literacy and then try to extend it as "It's the Web!"


    IT'S THE QUALITY OF TEACHERS and how the kids relate to them.



    IT'S ALSO ABOUT THE WAY IN WHICH THE CHILD IS GUIDED THROUGH STRUCTURE (rote learning) and FLEXIBILITY (discovery, game-playing, imagination).

    Personally, I don't think the "digital divide" is about a gap of technical competence or whether someone is online or offline. It's about how they access that knowledge, comprehend it and can make sense of it to enable them to converse with others about it.

    I used the example of everyone in the same class having access to the same book content in 'Great Expectations' and their personal neural navigations (or MBTI propensities) will lead them to contextualize exactly the same content differently. The same thing happens with online content.

    It even happens with a university reading list. The lecturer advises the entire class to go and source the materials from the British Library / Bodleian / LSE / bookstore. They will all have exactly the SAME RESEARCH RESOURCES and yet we can be guaranteed that less than a handful out of a class of 120 will get summa cum laude / A / 1st whilst 10% of the class will score 60-69, 30% will get 50-59, etc.

    This notion of "meta-cognitive 'executive' attention - the skills crucial to creativity and problem-solving" is a curious one. First of all, a handful of bankers decided to get "creative" with their meta cognition on mortgage-backed securities to try and solve the problem of lack of investor interest in the stock markets (at the time, returns in US stocks were so low that global investors were losing interest).........So someone decided to apply their attentions to creating mortgage CDOs which eventually triggered the near cardiac arrest of global capital flows.

    Secondly, the majority of executives perform in a functionary way. That is they follow a standard operating procedure; they don't problem-solve in the way that, for example, astrophysicists / pure mathematicians / technologists / firefighters / doctors / soldiers etc. do.

    Thirdly, a lot of the world's greatest ideas spark from regular folk and not the "meta-cognitive executive mind". Da Vinci was not an executive, he was an artist and scientist.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'd also like comment on these two points specifically:

    (1.) "Who are we?", as much as "who do we want to be?"

    (2.) "the greatest turning points in human history are often triggered by changing conceptions of time and space."

    The concept of personal identity has been with us since Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. Here's a strange paradox and it's related to Twitter. Twitter is said by some psychoanalysts and social commentators to be a reflection of human narcissism:

    * https://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article5747308.ece%3FSubmitted%3Dtrue

    Well, do we ever stop to contextualize and realize that our question of, "Who are we? Who do we want to be" are actually the ultimate forms of encouraging narcissism?

    Twitter's mantra of "What are you doing now?" would seem to promote LESS narcissism because the question is about being interested in what someone else is doing rather than in who we are.

    On the time-space issue, I had a great conversation last month with a Spanish astrophysicist (aged late 50s and he's been on the academic circuit for 30+ years, including lectures by the likes of Professor Hawkings). I outlined my contextualization tools to him and his wife and their eyes got bigger and bigger in disbelief. Then amongst compliments about my originality of thinking he said, "You’re a fresh breath of air and what’s needed!”

    We moved onto Electromagnetic Spectrum theory. I have this thought that brain consciousness isn't detectable by MRI and ECGs alone and that we also need more calibrated biochem-based tools to test for it. During my development process, I extended my contextualization tool from simulating the EMS into one simulating DNA.

    Anyway, he asked, “Can you define what time is? I don’t mean as in “The passage of seconds / minutes / hours of an event occurring.” I mean as a mathematical proof.”

    Here's the answer: NO.

    The oddity about all of Man’s scientific constructs is this: we use the term “time” (as an axiomatic label) and yet none of our greatest scientific minds have ever been able to pin down what time really is in definitive proof.

    What I grasped quickly from his passing observation about the “time” paradox is that our perceptions vary with time and are co-dependent on LANGUAGE DEFINITIONS that we’ve created and accumulated in each of our unique brains. Yet not only does “dog” mean different things and has different connotations / associations depending on our individual cultures, experiences and reference frames, “time” itself is registered differently to each one of us and it defies a definitive proof, even if it has a dictionary entry as a concept of an event elapsing.

    Therefore, if our definitions vary with time……………..what is supposedly real and established is actually imaginary, ambiguous and in flux.

    So.......all paths lead us back to what I noted before..........LANGUAGE. CONTEXT. CONSEQUENCE.

    The language we use can either enable contextualization and objectivity and concurrent appreciation of the consequential thoughts and actions, thereafter OR it can be incomprehensible and lead to circularity and no breakthroughs of enlightenment.

    In the case of the Web and nurturing concentration, it's not going to be about "changing conceptions of time and space." It's going to be about language, contextualization and consequentiality.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm tired so this is badly thought out. Those that get the most from the Web are those that are best prepared ¦¦ - (blessed by genes that are modified by nurture) e.g. a nurturing family, encouraged to develop vocabulary, interests, thinking strategies and the like from an early age, encouraged in education, both cushioned by and supported by a modicum of wealth, given opportunities and stimulating experiences when young and so on (this list could easily be expanded) ¦¦ - to become 'critical consumers and ethical producers of information'.

    At heart I'm now thinking that the debate is less about whether the web is affecting our ability to 'think' (concentrate, discriminate, connect, analyse, criticise etc) - it may affect some to some extent-; but more importantly how divisions within both our society and between families affects peoples' ability to use the web effectively.

    I'll admit that I've already put forward an opinion that I believe there is a digital elite that drives developments on the web, and get the most from it (so that influences my thinking); but it may also be that it's our 'real world' experiences and education, outside of our interactions with technology, that are most influential when it comes to our interacting with the web; that is what primarily needs addressing when it comes to tackling 'Web Illiteracy'.
    Regarding PNAB's last paragraph in post 4 above. Leonardo may have been one of the 'regular folk' (illegitimate son of a peasant), he also had a good education; but - and it is very great 'but' - he was a genius.
    Leonardo, Mozart, Bach, Shakespeare etc all were geniuses. A very few people are; most aren't. We still don't know what made those few individuals the geniuses that they were.

  • Comment number 7.

    As pointed out by APNAB the educational opportunities for children have never been equal and still remain so, certainly in the UK. SherifTim is quoting from a US report, their educational system differs greatly from the UK one. Until we, in the UK, have uniform access to the tools needed for children to learn and the teachers capable of utilising these tools and teaching their appropriate use we will never reach the high achieving literate and numerate population advocated by successive governments.

    I believe it is because the systems in place these days are constantly measuring 'performance' of children throughout their schooling that we have a skewed view of what education really is. If the youth of today is 'failing' then why are more moving into tertiary education than back in the, pre digital, 'Golden Age of Education'.

    As a schoolchild in England in the 1950's one was expected to pass the 11 plus examination at the end of primary schooling to gain a place on the superior secondary education conveyor belt from which a small percentage would then be judged good enough to attend University. Fail the 11+ and after a short time on an inferior secondary education path one was considered menial work fodder. An extreme simplification I know; but being a product of, a part of and then observing the English education system for nearly 60 years, through all it's top down reorganisations, restructures, reports and reinventions, gives me a rather cynical view of those who castigate the ability of today's youth.

    For me education started in a tiny village school with a slate and scribe due to post war rationing, then replaced by thick graphite pencil and paper. I did not have access to dip pen and ink in the classroom until the age of 8 yrs. I gave my son access to writing materials, books, a computer joystick and keyboard before he was a year old, by 3 years he was reading and writing. On entering the state school system he was a confident reader, writer and competent computer user with appropriate software. Throughout his time in the school system he remained ahead of his classroom teachers' skills in using computers both as a learning tool and in coding ability.

    I will reiterate my position: computers, technological gadgetry and software are tools, just like pen, paper and books. In order to gain maximum educational value from them their advantages, limitations and application must first be taught. I also believe this should start with the very young.

  • Comment number 8.

    @EnglishFolkFan --- thanks for sharing that invaluable first-hand insight. It helps to contextualize where you’re coming from and why you’re so passionate about providing access to and applying technology APPROPRIATELY to kids from a very young age.

    It may make more sense to test children’s MBTI first and get some sense of their individual learning preferences before they’re crammed with information and then pressurized with various SATs aged all of 6.

    Sometimes, I think of the “To tech or not to tech?” question and when kids should have access to it akin to the “When is the right time to teach them a new language other than the mother tongue?” For me, technology is simply another language --- just like English, French, Maths, business, etc.

    I was born into a trilingual household and spoke my first words at six months. The British education system’s approach to languages is a curious one. My parents and their friends were educated in three South East Asian languages from the ages of 6 and even now, decades on, they slip seamlessly from one language to another. It’s literally like second nature to them!

    It’s interesting you got access to dip pen and ink aged 8. When I was 8, I got two brilliant stimuli for my brain: my baby brother and a handheld “shoot ‘em up, collect the bomb” electronic game.

    Instead of turning me into any psycho/sociopath, it actually developed my concentration, dexterity, spatial reasoning and numeracy. Concentration because I soon figured out that there was an established sequence with which the baddies / bombs were appearing or dropping. Dexterity because there was a need to manoeuvre fast to either shoot the baddies or catch the bombs which were falling at different rates before they hit the ground and a game life was lost. Spatial reasoning because I had to work out that --- on the horizontal axis I could move my object over (gun/bomb collecting vehicle) --- the speed and pressure I applied in pressing down affected the distance the object traveled. Therefore, bizarrely, I gained a concept of velocity years before maths classes taught me it. Numeracy because each baddie / bomb had a different color and number value, so once I grasped there was a sequence, I’d sum up the values of baddies and bombs in my head and try to rack up a score within a certain time, by focusing on shooting/catching certain higher value baddies or bombs first. In this way, my older brother and I could compare who was better at the game.

    This personal experience may explain why I don’t automatically kneejerk believe, “Electronic games are evil and they damage a child’s brain!” That needn’t happen if three things are true:

    (1.) The child is predisposed to perceiving the game as some sort of challenge puzzle and that there’s meaning or “something to be learnt from it”. In my case, sequences.

    This may also explain why I’m into CONSEQUENTIALITY now, :*).

    (2.) Parents limit gadget game-playing strictly to AFTER their child has done all their homework, read their books, completed their sports training with friends. Even then only to a specific period of time (no more than 30 minutes).

    (3.) Technology is applied within the wider and deeper context of the importance of SMART EDUCATION not just “good” education.

    Frankly, some of the topics taught at school are not particularly good, interesting, enlightening, inspiring or applicable to our careers so it’s not surprising that some youngsters “switch off”.

    @ Maggie Jackson --- ON THE QUESTION OF HOPSCOTCH……

    For me, hopscotch is deeper and more complex than its seeming superficiality. When we throw the pebble onto the square (numbered 0-10) and hop to pick it up, we enforce our concepts of number order and our memories as well as our sense of balance and our aim. We have to remember which number square we’ve already thrown to. We have to work out the projectile maths to apply to hit that square and then we have to maintain a sense of space and gravity whilst we’re hopping. If we misjudge the hop, we end up landing on the lines or wrong squares and breaking the rules of the game.

    Ergo, hop-scotching is about developing strong concentration in several key skills: spatial reasoning, rules observance, projectile and ordered maths. These all help with problem-solving later in Life.

    “Hopscotching” around the Web is actually like when we place a bookmark (our pebble) onto a webpage (a numbered square) to remind us to return and pick up that content.

    This difference in our perception and associations to hopscotch shows semantics and semiotics at play, which is all useful knowledge.

  • Comment number 9.

    @SheffTim --- The digital elite are driving developments across every synapse and node that is the Web.

    Nonetheless, amongst them there are vast differences of motivation, altruism and influence. Tim Berners-Lee could be a gazillionaire a gazillion times over if he’d decided to monetize his invention for pure personal gain instead of altruistic gifting. During his career at Microsoft, Bill Gates attracted some controversy from those who wanted to label the company as a “monopoly” and also the European Commission which fined it US$ 1.4 billion for anti-competitive behavior.

    * https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7392949.stm

    Yet now Bill Gates is one of the world’s leading philanthropists and commits his vast wealth to tackling issues including education and disease in Africa:

    * https://www.gatesfoundation.org/annual-letter/Pages/2009-bill-gates-annual-letter.aspx

    Personally, I’d like us to experience a Web evolution in which EVERY FOR-PROFIT COMPANY CONTRIBUTES A % OF NET REVENUES (ONLINE) TO CHARITABLE CAUSES as a standard operating procedure and legal requirement.

    That would certainly shift corporate mindsets to the wider context and consequences of their actions upon local communities, society, Nature and global neighbors. Potentially, implementing that corporate altruism might reduce the likelihood of a repeat of the global financial crisis (or, at the very least, the severity of it). Lord Adair Turner, the Chair of the FSA, has already commented on the the way that some bankers' activity is "socially useless" and he calls for the implementation of something similar to the Tobin Tax for all transactions:

    * https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/08/how-to-tame-global-finance/

    The powers-who-are are currently ping-ponging this about in spaces like the FT's Lex column and economic forum debates as well as in the Institute of Directors and City boardrooms.

    As an associated point, here are some stats from a piece of analysis I did on the Credit Crunch:

    * US$637 billion in subprime-related losses by global financial institutions (Bloomberg, October 2008)

    * Meanwhile, 923 million around the world are going hungry and waiting for the US$12.3 billion aid promised by industrialized nations at G8 meeting Rome, June 2007 (Spiegel Online, 16 October 2008)

    • US$3.2 TRILLION PLEDGED BY GOVERNMENTS to pump liquidity into the system via TARP, tax credits, quantitative easing (as of Oct 2008 and the value of those pledges has been increasing since then)

    [I did a map of each country and its government's pledge.]

    • US$1 trillion from the US government alone in its 4-pillar correction approach.

    So one of the reasons I'm suggesting % from online revenues to go to charitable causes is because during the bubble build-up of the global financial crisis, US$ billions --- if not trillions --- was made during electronic trading of the mortgage CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and the CDs (credit derivatives) used as wrappers to try to diversify some of the CDOs' risks.

    Just 1% of those transactions would provide new hospitals / schools / technology access for someone, somewhere.


    The “elite” have existed amongst our species since time in memoriam, pre and post-Digital Enlightenment. They either reached the apex of hierarchical systems by:

    • sheer brute force --- Attila the Hun

    • brilliant intellect --- Confucius

    • a combination of physical strength and strategic thinking --- Alexander the Great

    In our Internet era, the “elite” are dispersed in the very DNA of the Web:

    (1.) An Oxford graduate invented the Web.

    (2.) A majority of key US techcos were founded by individuals with privileged educations --- Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Wharton, MIT, etc. --- or family backgrounds (access to seed investment).

    (3.) The investment community is comprised of individuals with MBAs from the top universities in the world.

    (4.) The tech companies set specific criteria about employee qualifications for code engineering positions (PhDs, top tier university rather than red-brick) as well as for client-facing or M+A business roles (e.g., top MBA, experience as a technology banker, multi-lingual).

    (5.) The study of, writings on and commentary about the Web --- that become standards, accepted concepts like “digital native” and win awards --- is predominantly from individuals educated at Ivy League / Oxbridge-Russell 19 / Sorbonne / Bocconi other countries equivalents like China’s Tsinghua or India’s Management Institute institutions.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with being part of an “elite”, provided that anyone who belongs to it also needs to have a CONSCIOUSNESS ABOUT THE CONTEXT AND CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR ACTIONS AND CONTRIBUTIONS.

    Some “elites” use the access and influence they have to try to democratize as much of the global systems for the many, not the few.

    Some “elites” deploy measures to pull up the drawbridges and ladders to prevent others from joining their world.

    Meanwhile, some “elites” simply go about their business oblivious to the plights of anyone but themselves.

    The question is, “What are the elites doing FOR or against smart, constructive society and Nature?”


    Personally, I can’t wait for the mash-ups with BBCDigRev content --- in particular from kids, from women, from other cultures and from silver surfers.

    As much as our interactions here are stimulating and, often, quite brilliant collectively it will be informative to see, experience, enjoy and ruminate about content and context that isn’t from the Ivy League/Oxbridge perspective of our guest bloggers (of a certain generation).

    There’s a lot of amazing creativity and problem-solving out there in the Inter-ecosystem that’s non-Ivy League/Oxbridge! Equally, we need our Ivy Leaguers and Oxbridgers etc. to contribute their dimensions to our overall 360-2020.

  • Comment number 10.

    Of related interest to the ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid’ discussion.
    Is Google Killing General Knowledge?

    The comments under it are also of interest.

    Source: this site’s magazine’s webmonitor page.

  • Comment number 11.

    @SheffTim --- Ha ha, I was just going to comment about Google Wave, Google Knol and Google groups as examples of how Google is about more than its search engines.

    What strikes me is that it's clear most guest bloggers here aren't familiar with or leverage Google's KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT + COLLABORATION SOLUTIONS.

    Okay, please take a look at my Google Knol on 'The Global Brain, the Semantic Web....' which has won:

    * Best Knol, June 2009
    * Top Author Award
    * Top Pick Knol Award
    * Most translation points awarded to a knol to-date
    * Frequently high weekly viewing stats

    * https://knol.google.com/k/twain/the-global-brain-the-semantic-web-the/31fjy9fjsu1x2/19

    Maggie Jackson expresses concerns about my generation and future generation's ability to do solid research and (effectively) connect the dots or problem-solve. Others speak about loss of textual and reading knowledge with their displacement via videos and other media.

    Well.........what my knol shows is that WE CAN FISH, FLEX, FOLD + FUSE research, content, analysis, collaboration, context etc. within a digital space quite smartly and actually accelerate everyone's knowhow.

    As for whether there's a need to retain the type of information which would win us 'Mastermind' / 'University Challenge' / pub quizzes, well memorization of facts+figures is not the same as critical reasoning or creativity. Moreover, have any of those memory champions been able to apply their knowledge to invent or innovate solutions?

    Are any of them like Erno Rubik? Linus Torvalds? Professor Harry Kroto? Deng Xiaopeng? Clara Furse? Steven Spielberg? Jonathan Ives?

  • Comment number 12.

    As for my previous comment: "....tools like 5-star rating systems are, frankly, DEFICIENT. That's an entire onion layer of knowledge missing right there."

    I've been conscious of this since childhood. At school we had wall charts on which the teacher would stick gold stars or grades like A/B/C or 甲/乙。 It never made sense to me why as adults we have online tools which are elementary school level --- particularly given our advances in so many other areas of code to foster quality content and collaboration.

    Anyway, I've been fishing, flexing, folding and fusing within my brain about this for several years and this year I had my code "Eureka!" epiphany.

    How is it relevant today and here on this blog about the history, now and future of the Web? Well, I've been emphasizing the need for smarter CONTEXTUALIZATION tools and how 5*-rating systems simply don't cut it. One of my friends just sent me this link:

    * https://www.techcrunch.com/2009/09/22/youtube-comes-to-a-5-star-realization-its-ratings-are-useless/

    I'm smiling because I know with a confidence level of 99% that no one has thought of the tool I have yet to replace 5-star rating systems and tackle the limitations of the Semantic Web stack at the same time. They would need to be as Atypical as I am, :*).

  • Comment number 13.

    PNAB. I found your Knol a few weeks ago. You quoted something, I Googled and Hey Presto!

    ‘what my knol shows is that WE CAN FISH, FLEX, FOLD + FUSE research, content, analysis, collaboration, context etc. within a digital space quite smartly and actually accelerate everyone's knowhow.’

    You can certainly brainstorm, and then some; but as I’ve said before I don’t see you as a typical representative of your generation. (That is a compliment BTW.)

    I hope you see your ideas taken up, and that they can deliver what you think they can. But until then we have to look at what’s currently in use and how the vast majority of people engage with the Web.

    As for Google’s Knol generally, I’m unconvinced it’s the future; essentially it’s another blogspace with wiki features. It has similarities with H2G2 and some other sites. I’m sure Knol has its fans, but it hasn’t really captured people’s imaginations in any major way.

    As for the finding about the five-star YouTube ratings (link above); wholly unsurprising.

    A predominantly teen audience will either LOVE IT (5 stars) or HATE IT (0-1 star). There isn’t a lot of critical thinking or more nuanced judgement going on to produce 2, 3 or 4 star ratings. The same applies to any similar rating system on other sites e.g. Amazon*.

    But I pay little attention to these anyway; these aren’t about attempting to produce a ‘wisdom of crowds’ ratings system, it’s about gaining customer loyalty by giving them a sense of involvement. (Cynical? moi?)

    *The reviews on Amazon I do pay attention to, many are well informed; people have to think though and articulate their response to a book or CD, not just click on a button.

  • Comment number 14.

    Oh dear I've only just manages to access this site, my demon ISP had demonic happenings in the system and so I've been bereft of the internet for 12 hours as I don't *do* 3G on my ancient mobile!

    SheffTim - Yes I saw that article, interesting how some commentators obviously hadn't read to the end of the piece and reflected before posting their responses!

    On your point about the successful utilisers and boundary pushers of the web being in the main from nurturing home/educational backgrounds. It is precisely because of this divide that I advocate a level educational playing field starting in the infant classroom.

    As APNAB examples the younger the mind, within the provision of a safe learning environment, the greater the chances the utilisation of the self learning tools of listening, speech, reading and writing are mastered. Without unlocking this door of understanding there is little chance a young person can mature into the kind of reasoned thinker Maggie Jackson would have us all become.

  • Comment number 15.

    5 stars OR thumbs-up-thumbs-down OR 100% scale.........


    My tool includes 1200+ terms to rate an item with, a calibration methodology AND users have dynamic input.

    Wrt. Google Knol et al, at the end of the day, they're all still FLAT, 2D, SOMEWHAT STATIC CANVASES and not that different from what existed in Web 1.0 or as Larry Brilliant observed when he was commenting about his own 1985 social network creation, the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), with where we are now, "Technology hasn't changed THAT much":

    * https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oKKz97WO-0

    Please watch all 6 parts.

    The surprising thing is that this video series has been up since January 2009 and look at the low view count: 280 for Part 6.

    So....100+ million YouTubers prefer to watch Su'Bo than a fairly serious and intelligent exploration of how the likes of Google can help tackle climate change and information sharing.

    Anyway, I've yet to happen upon a UI that is as the tech sector likes to label it "a KILLER" UI. Maybe we have to wait for the sci-fi from 'Minority Report' to become reality.

  • Comment number 16.

    I put above “At heart I'm now thinking that the debate is less about whether the web is affecting our ability to 'think' (concentrate, discriminate, connect, analyse, criticise etc) - it may affect some to some extent-; but more importantly how divisions within both our society and between families affects peoples' ability to use the web effectively.”

    Below is an example of what I mean about societal divisions between those that grow up to have the intellectual and knowledge skills that distinguish the digital haves from the digital have-nots. (The same will apply to Africa and other developing countries too.) Life doesn't provide a level playing field for everyone when it comes to opportunities, stimulation and encouragement.

    “Pupils often come to the school not toilet-trained, with parents saying, ‘The school will do that’. Many pupils cannot speak on arrival in school at age three and skills are well below age-related expectations. The early years are vitally important if, by the [age of 11], the children are to achieve high standards academically and socially, as they do.”

  • Comment number 17.

    Although SheffTim, EnglishFolkFan and I are culturally and generationally different, it's clear that we all agree about establishing positive educational foundations for children LONG BEFORE their exposure to the Web. This grounding affects their technical competence with it as well as the ability to research, discover, differentiate between quality and lowest denominator, concentrate, think, collaborate etc.

    The Web is attributed and blamed for all kinds of negatives.

    However, I'd like to repeat: WE CONTROL THE WEB. It's our fishing rod, not vice versa. We are the ones with the self-discipline who can decide how to fly-fish, which spot to cast towards, how wide apart our feet are to steady ourselves, where it's safe in the rapids to stand, and WHAT INTENSITY OF CONCENTRATION we want to commit to any attempts to catch those Salmons of Knowledge.

    The fishing rod doesn't make any of those human decisions. WE DO.

    On the issue of parenting skills that prepare each of us for school, it's not about economic status and whether parents can afford the schooling.

    Here are 10 simple and valuable qualities parents of any and every demographic can instill in their pre-schoolers:

    * sense of emotional security
    * sense of self and identity
    * sense of society
    * sense of relationships
    * sense of responsibility
    * reciprocity of respect
    * consideration
    * patience
    * context
    * consequence

    Here's an anecdotal observation about why some kids arrive at school aged 3 unable to speak.

    Sometimes, on my bus journeys, I'm shocked at the way parents treat their toddlers. The child makes perfectly reasonable observations about objects around them and asks, "Why....How....When...What....Where." questions. Instead of developing their communication skills and engaging with them in a conversation that provides them with knowledge as well as respect their right to learn, the parent silences their curiosity and arrests their development with either a cold hard stare, a smack, a sharp finger to the lips or simply ignores them.

    It's visible and palpable how the child's self-confidence is crushed.

    They look dejected, embarrassed. Their eyes lose that spark. They self-comfort by burying their heads into their shoulders. Sometimes, they even cry. They get the message that they're not supposed to think, to talk or to ask how-to-do's? Later in school, even if they're struggling with the work they're already conditioned by that early experience not to speak up and to ask for help.

    Later still, they navigate around the Web in a somewhat aimless, clueless and unfocussed way.

    That's an example of consequence, right there.

  • Comment number 18.

    Related to various discussions about if and how people filter information and decide what is worthwhile and what is not when searching the Web: “A new study has found that children aged between 12 to 15 believe that Google's search engine ranks websites in terms of truthfulness, rather than the messy business of links, click throughs and relevance.”


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