bioephemera

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I went to a party the other day wearing the shirt above. I’d seen it online, expressed covetousness, and the staffer actually tracked it down and bought it for me (thus scoring major points for A) an early Christmas present, B) listening to my incessant stream-of-consciousness babble, and C) appreciating his girlfriend’s geeky streak.)

Anyway, at the party, most of my friends couldn’t decipher anything past “OMG, WTF.” I was surrounded by “digital immigrants.” In fact, I’m a digital immigrant myself: I didn’t get my first email account until college, and I never IM’d until a year or two ago. That’s hard for many twenty-somethings to imagine!

Marc Prensky’s [1] ubiquitous terms, “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, have become convenient shorthand for the differences between the under-30 crowd, who (mostly) grew up immersed in internet culture, and the rest of us. Depending whom you ask, these differences are profound, overblown, disastrous, transformative, inspiring, or just plain scary. Some degree of miscommunication between generations is inevitable. Parents rarely “get” their teens’ culture. Teens enjoy defining their own identities. And every few years, something new prompts prophecies of imminent social decay (comic books, rock and roll, television, etc.). So how much should we worry about the “digital divide” between natives and immigrants?

Two recent books, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives and iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, take very different approaches to this question. The authors agree that digital natives are deeply affected by their constant immersion in technology, and that digital culture will influence the future of our society. But the similarities end there: Born Digital, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, is a lucid, calm exploration of how today’s youth relate to technology, law, information, and each other, while iBrain is an alarmist, pop-science barrage of anecdotes and non sequiturs. (Guess which one I’m going to recommend!)

Palfrey and Gasser based their book on a series of interviews with digital natives from several different countries. Their theme is that key social concepts are handled quite differently in digital culture than in “real life”: concepts like identity, privacy, friendship, information ownership, information credibility, and so on. Digital immigrants – those of us who weren’t born with a silver mouse in our palm – can be proficient with technology and thoroughly wired; I sit here typing on a PC with my Blackberry buzzing to one side and my iPhone on the other. Digital immigrants built the internet. But we also remember a time when you couldn’t download music; no one had cameraphones, much less cell phones; work colleagues were out of touch between 6pm and 8am; we routinely visited libraries and asked questions of librarians; and our professional colleagues and friend networks were discrete, if not mutually exclusive. For better or worse, that era is over. And our memory of it is both a gift and a curse; a gift because perspective is generally a good thing, and a curse because our intuitive responses to certain questions don’t sync with those of our younger siblings and kids, who will eventually be making the laws and policies that govern our society.


Palfrey, a law professor at Harvard, is especially concerned about the legal implications of the internet, and the book’s strength lies in examining the aspects of web culture that digital natives take for granted. What does it mean that one’s identity, as represented by profiles on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, can be manipulated, rewritten, and changed at a whim – but that embarrassing photos or other content could linger on the web for years, searchable by future employers? What does it mean that many popular websites for youth are essentially corporate marketing vehicles, collecting all manner of personal information about their young user-customers? Digital natives have much less control over their online identities than they might think!

Digital natives have a lot more going on upstairs than they’re reputed to. While articles like “Is Google Making Us Stupid” [2] invite nostalgia for a time when youth read real books, they also neglect the ways that youth navigate a nearly indigestible glut of knowledge. Multitasking, manipulating and searching information: these are skills which digital immigrants don’t necessarily appreciate, but that are increasingly essential to deal with ambient information overload. Digital natives are very good at multitasking – they have to be. Unfortunately, they may become so good at insulating themselves from overload that they isolate themselves in a cozy, custom nest of homogenous sites that reflect their own opinions: an echo chamber [3].

Palfrey and Gasser also acknowledge that not every young person is a digital native – only those with the access and skills necessary to engage new technologies. They don’t spend much time talking about how these access issues fragment youth. Nor do they attempt to break the “digital native” monolith into its component parts. Surely gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class profoundly influence the skills a digital native chooses to learn, and what they do with technology. But in the absence of granular data to differentiate between these groups of users, Palfrey and Gasser do a solid job of conveying the fundamentals.

The target audience of Born Digital consists of those digital immigrants who teach, raise, and work with digital natives. Ideally, parents would be reading this book to balance out alarmist media accounts of chat room kidnappings, MySpace bullying, and internet brainwashing. Teachers and communicators would be reading it too, to better relate to the digital natives they’re trying to teach. And policymakers should consider reading it, to better anticipate upcoming conflicts.

On the other hand, if you can parse the acronyms on my “OMG” shirt, you probably don’t need to read Born Digital. In general, I think internet-savvy people of any age – bloggers, for example – are attuned to digital culture, whether or not they grew up with it. Still, if you routinely find yourself playing the role of digital guru, explaining “blogging” and “social networking” to your colleagues and family, the clear phrasing and arguments in this book could be a useful toolkit. I read it as part of a deeper tour of digital culture, and I found it helpful in organizing my thoughts.

With books like Born Digital out there, I really hope that parents and teachers with questions don’t turn to iBrain: Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind. Author Gary Small is the director of UCLA’s Center on Aging, a researcher who investigates the impacts of Web media on learning and memory. But I’m guessing iBrain was written largely by his co-author and wife, Gigi Vorgan, because I don’t detect the fingerprints of a researcher here. iBrain‘s apparent strategy is to intone a warning about the ways new technology is shortening our attention spans, reducing literacy, rewiring our brains, etc. – while eagerly embracing the sound-byte sensibility. (The chapters are broken into short sections with headings like “Honey, Does My Brain Look Fat?”)

Almost anywhere you turn in the book, the text is interrupted by a sidebar, illustration, text box, quiz, activity, or amusing heading. The overall effect is non-threatening – you can jump in anywhere and start reading, regardless of context, and skip around as you like. (Sounds a lot like the internet, doesn’t it?) The content is very shallow, and frequently the connections between one section and the next are poorly defined. There are no footnotes – only a loose collection of citations organized by page number (you can tell they really wanted to use hyperlinks). Several times I searched for the reference supporting an assertion and could find none – am I supposed to assume that anything uncited is based in Dr. Small’s own work? Never mind – just skip ahead to the “Technology Addiction Questionnaire” in Chapter 6, a chapter full of quizzes. Fun! And for those who found my OMG T-shirt incoherent, there’s a glossary of text message shortcuts! W00t! (That means “yay”).

To be fair, iBrain doesn’t sell itself as a neuroscience textbook (despite the big ol’ brain on the cover). Its tagline is “key strategies for bridging the brain gap; a technology toolkit for digital immigrants; and tips for managing techno-brain burnout.” But the book does imply that it has a grounding in medical science. So the most awful thing about it, at least to this biologist, is the way it mangles the concepts of learning and evolution. A reader might come away from this book thinking they are the same process!

From the very first page of iBrain:

“The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains. Daily exposure to high technology-computers, smart phones, video games, search engines like Google and Yahoo – stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones. Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now – at a speed like never before (emphasis original).”

Whoa. How is the process described here (brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release) different from learning? Any new experience or technology will shape its user’s brain through the process of learning – but that isn’t “evolution”. An M.D./researcher should know that.

I hoped the authors were just being a little sloppy with their language. But then I turned the page:

“Although we are unaware of these changes in our neural circuitry or brain wiring, these alterations can become permanent with repetition. This evolutionary brain process has rapidly emerged over a single generation and may represent one of the most unexpected yet pivotal advances in human history (emphasis original).”

Okay, can I throw this book across the room? Please?

How in Darwin’s name can an “evolutionary process” emerge and have impact over a “single generation?” It’s almost as if Dr. Small and his co-author endorse Lamarckian evolution (the discredited theory in which individuals’ activities alter their bodies in heritable ways, which are then passed on to offspring). The authors write as if we can observe some sort of unprecedented internet-induced metamorphosis in our childrens’ brains. But no such thing is happening! Digital natives are learning, just as generations of humans have before them. They are simply learning new skills and adapting to different environments and tools. That may be scary, but it’s not evolution. The “evolution” taking place during the transition from digital immigrants to digital natives is metaphorical and cultural, not biological, and the authors do their readers a disservice by discussing it so sloppily.

Unconvinced? Try this: a section entitled “Natural Selection” begins “evolution essentially means change from a more primitive to a more specialized or advanced state” (that should raise the hackles on many a biologist I know) and continues:

When your teenage daughter learns to upload her new iPod while IM’ing on her laptop, talking on her cell phone, and reviewing her science notes, her brain adapts to a more advanced state by cranking out neurotransmitters, sprouting dendrites, and shaping new synapses. This kind of moment-to-moment, day-in and day-out brain morphing in response to her environment will eventually have an impact on future generations through evolutionary change.

Brain morphing? Pardon my naughty acronym, but STFU! The process described here is learning! One of the most frustrating characteristics of iBrain is a habit of hyping basic biological concepts to make them sound unprecedented and bizarre. (Don’t get me started on how the daughter is “uploading” a new, presumably empty iPod. I assume she’s actually “syncing” it).

Unfortunately, the generalities, hyperbole and italics (these people love italics more than I do, which is saying a lot) continue:

“We are witnessing the beginning of a deeply divided brain gap between younger and older minds-in justone generation.”

“As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture.”

“Even now, women tend to be more social and talk more about their feelings, while men, no longer hunters, retain their highly evolved right brain visual-spatial skills, thus often refusing to use the GPS navigation systems in their cars to get directions.”

Please!

So who is the intended audience of iBrain? The book appears to target those digital newcomers who are distressed by and uncomfortable with the growing role of the internet in their lives (and if they weren’t distressed before, after reading about cybersuicide, internet addiction, ADHD and technology burnout, they may well become so). Like an issue of Cosmo, iBrain uses quizzes, activities and anecdotes to appeal to the reader, reassure the reader that he or she is normal, and empower him or her to use the internet more comfortably (how to “fine-tune” your search engine skills! How to avoid “Replying to All”! How to reduce stress through meditation!) There is virtually no discussion in this book of youth and their unique perspective on technology – only alarm about the gap between digital natives’ skills and their parents’ skills, and some vague hand-waving about evolution. In other words, iBrain does nothing to demystify digital native culture or to explore the novel long-term social impacts of the ways youth use the internet. It may even worsen the perceived divide between digital immigrants and digital natives.

Honestly, the most interesting thing about iBrain is that it’s so meta to find a book aimed at those troubled by web culture, which itself reflects so many of the flaws typically ascribed to the internet (including poor organization, lack of transitions, unclear citations, imprecise language, and shallow development of concepts). Is it really fair to blame the internet for lowering the level of public discourse, when you can find all those mistakes in a book, too?! At any rate, that’s where I left iBrain – mildly amused, but never coming back.

BTW, if you want to be immersed in the scholarship on digital culture, as opposed to taking a brief tour, the 2007 MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media is the bomb. But like a (classic) bomb, it’s also massive and dense, and best handled by people who have some idea what they’re doing. Born Digital is a better intro for the total newbie. (That means neophyte). You should also check out the wiki and other resources associated with Born Digital at the Berkman Center’s Digital Natives project.

References

Reviewed: Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser;
iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan

[1] pdf here

[2] “Is Google Making us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr, Atlantic Monthly

[3] See Cass Sunstein, Republic 2.0 for more on echo chambers.

Comments

  1. #1 The Ridger
    January 12, 2009

    OMG WTF? KTHXBAI is misspelled!!!!!

    Brilliant shirt

  2. #2 Mo
    January 13, 2009

    I got a review copy of iBrain some time ago, but haven’t gotten round to reading it yet.

    Maybe I won’t waste my time…

  3. #3 Sarah
    January 13, 2009

    Us twentysomethings are in an interesting position. We’re all digital immigrants, but like most who immigrate at a young enough age, we can pass for native in a pinch. We’re not natives, though. I’m not sure anyone older than 16 right now can claim to be a digital native.

  4. #4 bluewyvern
    January 14, 2009

    Great post/reviews/shirt. Much enjoyed.

    And iBrain really does sound horrendous. Yech.

  5. #5 bioephemera
    January 16, 2009

    Yeah, don’t read iBrain – but do tell people to read Born Digital, it’s really good.

  6. #6 Elizabeth (Elle)
    February 22, 2009

    ummm… i only get OMG WTF and STFU! so if someone could post a comment on giftfromgod’s youtube channel tellin me wat the other ones mean….that’d be GREAT!!!!

  7. #7 JRC #5
    March 2, 2009

    Hey get a life for whoever wears tacky clothes like this… its stupid..Fuckin txt Freaks…That or get high lol and then that shit would probly be ok

  8. #8 Jessica Palmer
    March 2, 2009

    JRC #5, your eloquence astonishes.

  9. #9 Chris Rathmel
    April 1, 2010

    Dr. Palmer, thank you for writing such a clear review of iBrain. As a student looking for resources, I had an kind of vague, uneasy feeling about iBrain’s use of the term “evolution,” simply from reading all of the positive summaries and reviews on the web. It is nice to have my feelings confirmed so eloquently by a Biologist. I’ll skip reading this one.