THE CHALLENGE OF CHANGING PERSPECTIVES


For those of you who accidentally received a first draft last week of this blog, this one is quite different in its overall perspective. You may be amused by the radical changes made.


As a member of the older generation, the changes I continue facing in everyday-life are historically unprecedented, wide-ranging, and in many ways controversial. A number are difficult to handle or to tolerate for many different age levels.

I find the continuing acceleration in the speed of change in life disturbing. Everybody is “busy” most of the time. We race from one place to another, spend too much time in traffic jams, rush through what we have to read, see on television and follow on our computers. Meals are cut short and Victorian style afternoon teas are no longer in fashion — they are too time consuming.

Through the dynamism of both technology and finance, we have changed not only the pace of life but also have altered its quality and direction. Money (that is, profits) has been the driving force of capitalism but almost no attention has been given to the effects on human beings which follow most innovations. In my last blog I focused on the unknown impact of iPads and tablets on infants. That was not the occasion to examine the possible impact of computers, mobiles and automation on adults.

What first comes to mind is what I am doing right now! The hours spent everyday on my computer are bad for my back, my eyes, my hands and my spirits. I still love writing with pen or pencil and find these wonderful, but slow and I, too, am often in a hurry. I am not on Facebook or the other social networks because they would intrude into my moments of leisure, time in the garden, or time to reflect.

So where can we take the currently uncontrolled and unplanned advances of technology which are popularly assumed may end with Artificial Intelligence? How to test the effects of automation on human beings as well as on entire societies? It is evident that as long as money/profits remain the prime driving force, there is little possibility of controlling the advance of untested but desirable technology-driven innovations for our brains and mental states.

Let me suggest that the pharmaceutical industry is a good example of what the Silicon valley giants could try to copy: In most countries almost all new medicines have to pass a variety of rigorous tests for their suitability on patients. If this difficult as well as bureaucratic program works effectively for protecting our physical health, why could different tests not be applied for the mental well-being of those subjected to electronically stimulated waves — ranging from head-sets to our everyday iPhones? We have little idea at the moment to what we are subjecting our brains (and hearts) and what the possibilities of damage there may be from many electronic devices.

On a broader perspective, some of the impacts of the new technology on the younger generation are evident: many no longer communicate in writing on paper and tend to stick to minimalism when it comes to expressing themselves. They even don’t like to use the telephone, regarding it as a medium of old-timers. I have been advised by a son that he no longer reads any email which extends beyond two terse paragraphs. As a writer, I find all of this poses cultural challenges which we could perhaps correct in schools and universities over time.

As a writer and former journalist, I am most disturbed by the newly popularized crisis of faith in journalism. The masses like to get the instant flow of events from Twitter and the online news organizations. What with the perverters of the truth, like Murdoch’s Sun newspaper in the UK and Fox News in the USA, the press increasingly gives readers the scandals they want rather than informing them of the events which might increase their knowledge or might be useful. For that matter, I have to confess that getting the Trump scenarios out of my mind is becoming an everyday challenge.

Even much of our economics are becoming unfathomable: Bit-Coins with their digital crypto-currencies make no sense. It seems that they are new instruments for gamblers, tax evaders, and high-tech risk takers rather than money to be used every day. Controls by governments of QE (Quantitative Easing) in which billions upon billions of dollars, pounds and other currencies have been pumped into bank reserves also seem most dubious. The whole QE process comes straight out of wonderland and tends to confuse minds, even in government, about reality.

I must balance these deep concerns with my expression of positive advances in so many areas. I am most enthusiastic about the giant greenhouses being based on the Eden Project in Cornwall. The co-founder, Sir Tim Smith, wants “to create oases of change… our job is to create a fever of excitement about the world that is ours to make better.” His group is now planning the construction of giant green-house domes in China, Australia and New Zealand.

I find the GPS of finding one’s way around the world as directed from outer space is a marvelous technological breakthrough, much as it may do away with our former ability to read maps. This is a variation of the impact that the technologies have on our abilities. When kids in schools some fifty years ago were given simple hand held adding machines, they quickly forgot how to do their sums.

The miracle cures for cancer exploiting the powers of genetics and our human immune systems are to be lauded. The related advances in gene editing techniques are promising extraordinary solutions to many of our genetically based illnesses. However, as with medicines, we should try to advance more carefully with intense examinations of the possible consequences rather than triumphantly announcing breakthroughs. The moral challenges we face with the introduction of gene editing must be dealt with enormous care and consideration. Our perspective of how to protect our minds after all these millennia of change and development must not be corrupted by the lure of money nor even by the competitive egos of leading scientists.1

Governments around the world are now planning to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles over the next 25+ years because the rising levels of nitrogen oxide present a major threat to public health as well as to climate change. If governments can do this on a cooperative basis, why can they not start research on whether the electronic products of ‘Silicon Valley” are affecting the mental and asocial imbalances of the population?

Thankfully, there are numerous aspects of our evolving cultures, like the above, which are greatly encouraging. I think it is most important to focus on these to bring greater hope to millions of people who have become deeply discouraged by the universal focus on capitalist competition, celebrity, and terrorism in this new millennium. I am advocating that the wonders of being alive on this incredible planet truly should be the basis for much of future optimism in the next generations.


1Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, (1996) pp. 421-428

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iPADS for INFANTS

I was rattled in a restaurant recently watching a couple encouraging their year-and-a-half toddler to slide a finger across his iPad. The little one was excited to see the changes on the screen. A few weeks later I observed a two-year-old grabbing his four-year-old brother’s iPad and operating it vengefully! For a few of the “advanced” members of this age group their first word is not “Mom” or “Dad” but “Pad.” Some toddlers even have become addicted to these electronic wonders! What is happening is that children are being subjected to unknown and untested challenges to their personal development.

There are numerous videos on YouTube of these little ones sliding their fingers across the pages of magazines lying on the kitchen table in an effort to activate them. Parents may wonder how the tablets affect their young ones, but most are pleased that quiet reigns in the house and they rationalize that even at this early stage of life their offspring are learning how to focus and develop their attention spans. However, some mothers and fathers are so fearful of the possible consequences that they have chosen to deny their kids access to these technological marvels.

“There is something important going on here and we need to learn what effects this is having on learning and attention, memory and social development,” says Jordy Kaufman, the director of BabyLab, one of the rare groups researching in this area, which is under the auspices of Australia’s Swinburne University.1 His team is trying to learn how the iPads and tablets affect the long-term mental development of the very young. His BabyLab is using innovative approaches to explore the cognitive as well social aspects of brain development in the very young.

The techniques at BabyLab include behavioral eye tracking, which measures observable changes in development, for example whether babies have a preference for faces over objects, as well as electro-physiological methods, which track changes that occur in brain activity when resting or responding to iPads. Toddlers do detect subtle changes. When they see something happening on the screen, like a change of color, an object in motion, or a face. The youngsters may empathize with what they observe. Their instant reaction is: “Is that me? Is that another?” For an instant they relate because that’s the way their brain is wired. Some of the very young may believe that the iPad is alive, but most intuitively accept that it is not.

While in depth studies have been made of the effects of television on the younger generation, very little research has been made on the effect of tablets on those in kindergartens. Indeed there may be benefits for the very young in developing motor skills as they learn to push buttons and softly slide their fingers. Their exposure to tablets may give them a kick-start to learning. However, Kaufman cautioned that “There is a school of thought that tablet use is rewiring children’s brains, so to speak, to make it difficult for them to attend to slower-paced information.”

Denying children access to iPads entails risks, contends Rose Flewitt who is doing research at the Institute for Education at the University of London. She studies how iPads can help literacy at the nursery and primary levels. “Having one section of society that is growing up with skills and one section that is growing up without it,” is problematic she posits. On the other hand, tablets and iPads do nothing to foster social skills for the very young.

The immediate response to pushing a button is highly satisfying and pleasurable for children who delight in the lights, images and sounds that emerge. There also are no admonishments coming from the iPads as well as a lack of any positive feedback. The electronic instruments are fast, dependable and soon become familiar. However, the cold glass, plastic and metal of the casings of the tablets provide only limited sensory experiences for the very young. There is none of the comfort provided by the traditional cuddlys and stuffies. The experts wonder whether a profound shift in childhood mindset may be taking place here without our understanding. It is appalling how little is known about the effects of the rapid and continuing educational technology advances these children now experience.

What is certain is that many of the new generations get hooked on the irresistibility of the swift educational technology advances. By the time they are teenagers they are likely to spend close to eight hours a day using electronics like computers, TV sets, smart-phones and iPads as most American 13-year-olds do today. However, I shall not wander into the more advanced levels of the $100 billion educational technology industry (which here encompasses the combined European and North American educational technology markets) which experiences continual development driven less by the needs of students and teachers than by the profit motive.

Over the past three decades we have seen that computers have been used to improve efficiency in the classrooms and keep pupils engaged, but they have not transformed learning in the way the promoters had predicted. It is basically unknown whether educational technology is advancing the potential of the new generation. The Economist contends that there has been a succession of inventions promising to overhaul education, but these have not done so yet. There has been little difference between the money spent on IT in schools and the abilities of 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading who have not received it.2

It seems evident to me that what is happening electronically at the early stages in the lives of children is now one of the basic aspects challenging their overall mental development. We simply don’t know how abandoning the reading of books, listening to stories, and other aspects of traditional education will affect future generations. Artificially personalized machine contacts are unlikely to match the look of the human eyes, the sound of a genuine voice, the scent of the adult, the warmth and familiarity of touch — all of which exert a personal impact whose combined effects on the psyche cannot be over-estimated. I believe we are putting our culture and entire civilization at great risk if we allow “the technological” to overwhelm “the human” during the introduction of the new generations into this world.


1Paula Cocozza, “Children of the Revolution,” The Guardian, January 9, 2014

2”Machine Learning,” The Economist, July 22, 2017, p.18