Category Archives: Science & Technology

Eek! Technology!

What Pinker says:

If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter. Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.

And our brains somehow handle all sorts of things.

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Filed under Cognition, Science & Technology

Nope, gadgets just let bad parents be worse parents

The New York Times has another of those “modern technology is bad for kids” articles today: “The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In.” This one, instead of blaming modern technology (TV, video games, computers, mobile phones—take your pick) for rotting kids’ brains, blames the gadgets for making parents ignore their kids. “Some child development experts,” as the article puts it, are concerned that parents become so engaged with their gadgets, checking email or reading websites, that their kids become jealous and resentful, even resorting to biting and hitting to get their parents’ attention. (Though I rather like the example of the kid who makes his mom set the microwave timer when she says she’ll be just a couple minutes more.)

But really? The gadgets make them ignore their kids?

It’s not the modern technology. It’s the parents. I see parents browsing through title after title in bookstores, ignoring kids pulling at their legs. I see kids squirming and squealing in strollers while their parents wander through just one more store at the mall. I see kids climbing over end tables in doctors’ waiting rooms while their parents read magazines, happily unconscious of the glares directed at them by others less unaware.

Nobody blames the books or the strollers or the magazines for making those parents ignore their kids. Why should we then blame the Blackberrys or the netbooks? Some parents with gadgets engage with their kids and some parents with gadgets don’t, just as some families make shopping a family excursion and pay attention to everybody’s needs and interests and stamina.

It’s not the technology. It’s just that some people don’t put their kids very high on their priority lists.

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Filed under Families, Miscellaneous ranting, Science & Technology, Uncategorized

Yeah, what he says . . .

Interesting essay by Clay Shirky in the Wall Street Journal this weekend–“Does the Internet Make You Smarter?

No surprise that this would appeal to me, a long-time fan of Steven Berlin Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You. And it turns out there’s a book due out next week: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.   Sounds like yet another book that may end up on my iPad to-be-read virtual shelves.

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Filed under Cognition, Reading, Science & Technology

As the look and feel change, so do our minds . . .

I’m a text geek. Most of what I do professionally involves text, either writing it or making it more appealing to read. I think in text, to the extent that (as I wrote about in Viral Learning) when I think of the color red, what I see in my mind is not the color itself, but the letters r-e-d (in a serif font, of course).

Every so often, though, something reminds me that the way I look at text has changed considerably over my lifetime. Consider the page spread here, which I shot from the 1954 Britannica Book of the Year my brother sent me for my birthday last year (because it covers the events of 1953, the year I was born).

what spiffy text used to look like

Once upon a time, this was bright and appealing page design, at least for publications as dignified as Britannica. When I received this volume last summer, I was shocked at how the pages looked–when we were kids, my brother and I used to love looking at these yearbooks partly because they had photos and looked far more interesting than the regular encyclopedia volumes.

As an adult, I find these pages unappealing—they’re a slog to read through, and not just because of the tiny print demanding too much of my presbyopic eyes. The margins are too narrow, the blocks of texts are too solid, and subheads are virtually nonexistent. I’m far less willing now to scan through the pages looking for the specific information I want.

Why so? I’ve been trained over the past three decades by the changes in the ways information is presented now. The early GUIs, like the first Mac OS, taught us to notice typefaces—sometimes explicitly (most of us quickly learned to avoid ransom note fonts), but more often in ways beyond our conscious notice. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when my parents returned my copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth unread (they’d not wanted to watch the movie because they find his voice annoying), because, as my mom put it, “It’s too dumbed down with all the pictures and big print.” I’d thought the book was an effective conversion of the slideshow, keeping the feel of the original with the charts and photos while adding plenty of additional information (including plenty of text). It would not have occurred to me that the size of the print meant the contents demanded a lower level of cognition. In short, my parents (in their 70s) expect serious nonfiction to look like the Britannica used to. My own expectations are different now.

I demand more now from the nonfiction I read. (With fiction, I’m still perfectly content with page after page of straight text–after all, I’m still into linear stories rather than the graphic novels that appeal to my older daughter these days.) i want good tables of contents and running heads and plenty of subheads to guide me. Modern publishing technology means that adding all those bells and whistles—making texts pretty!—is easy. It’s the effect of using software instead of lead type.

But I’m also reading far more than I read three decades ago. I’m not reading a book or two a week the way I used to—I’m reading books, plus articles from journals I’ve never seen physical copies of, newspapers from other continents, not to mention all the web information sources that don’t even have paper analogues. The volume of material I read is probably several times what it was when I was confined to paper. Without all the assistance from modern design esthetics, I couldn’t get through everything that interests me these days. I’ve learned to sort and judge material in ways I don’t even yet realize.

My brain processes are undoubtedly going through more changes even as I wonder at how they’ve already changed. Take that Pulse Reader on my iPad, for instance. It’s not only a pretty implementation of a news reader, but it lets me view more feeds more quickly than I could with my old RSS readers. (The review has more photos and a video.) In another year, who knows what new apps will be changing the ways I think and work?


Pulse Reader on the iPad

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Filed under Cognition, Learning, Reading, Science & Technology