analysis, bbc radio 4, 12 march 2009

KENAN MALIK  This programme is a cry for help. You see, I‘m one of those poor, unfortunate souls who logs on to Facebook everyday and fritters his time away on Twitter. I spend hours in front of my computer screen, Googling for information and jumping from link to link until I’m lost in the vastness of cyberspace. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield thinks my mind is turning to mush. The psychologist Oliver James fears that I’m losing my identity. And if there’s no hope for me, what about for today’s teenagers?

VILLIERS STUDENTS   I’m on the BBC iPlayer. The Arsenal website. I’ve logged onto Google. Looking at the latest news. Heroes. I’m playing a game, The World’s Hardest Game. Everyday you go on it, and if you go to your cousin’s house for a day and they haven’t got a PC you just – oh! I’ve gone to Amazon. BBC Sport, I’m looking at the cricket. Amazon you can buy a lot of books from here as well as other things. South Africa against Australia. Basically I’m on the third level and I’ve died like 60 times already. You just want to go back to it – you  say mum can I go home so I can use the PC? My sisters say I’m married to the laptop. LAUGHS.

KENAN MALIK  Children from Villiers High School in London. They might be married to their laptops but are they also divorced from reality?

DAVID NICHOLAS  This kind of power browsing, navigating, going through the piste very fast, gives you a sort of superficial knowledge. And there’s a shallowness that’s developing as a result of that.

DON TAPSCOTT   My brain was not fundamentally different from the brain of my parents. But my kids’ brains are different than mine. They’re the smartest generation and the best focussed so I’m not convinced by that argument.

KENAN MALIK  David Nicholas of University College London and the web guru Don Tapscott. The debate between the two expresses the question at the heart of this programme. There is a whole generation growing up with ideas about what information is, how to obtain it, and how to evaluate it, that are very different from those of previous generations. Many psychologists believe that new technology is helping to change the very structures of young peoples’ brains. Is this good, bad, or just different? Should we worry that children are growing up unable to read, think and relate to each other in an old-fashioned way? Or are the pessimists simply old fogeys, railing against a world they don’t understand, a bit as our parents railed against the Sex Pistols and raves. Or – perhaps – are we missing the real questions we need to address about the impact of new technology?

STEPHEN FRY   I’m getting new tweets as they’re called all the time. Most of them are entirely charming. So let’s see what people have got to say at the moment. Someone says 'How do you feel about sheep?' interesting question…

KENAN MALIK  The broadcaster Stephen Fry Twittering on his iphone. Twitter is the latest internet fashion, a service that allows you to make short comments (or ‘tweets’) which are read by your ‘followers’ – people who sign up to receive your twitterings. Fry now has more than a quarter of a million followers – second only to Barack Obama. He might play up to the image of someone not quite at home in the modern world. But he’s as sharp as a hashtag when it comes to new technology. And a great evangelist for the intellectual potential of a rewired world.

STEPHEN FRY   I mean let’s look at the most powerful kings there have ever been ever, you know the great autocrats or even dictators. In any sense that counts except the power of life over death, I have more power than Louis XVI. I have more power for knowledge and understanding is at my fingertips, and at yours. And I don’t even have to be sat at a computer. I can just carry a device around with me and I have. You know he had to summon scholars and ask grave questions. So we are immensely empowered.

KENAN MALIK  Fry is a digital immigrant. He grew up in the world of books and libraries and only later bought a ticket to cyberspace. But what of the digital natives? The ones for whom Google and Facebook are as much part of the landscape of childhood as Scalextrix and skateboards were to my generation?

VILLIERS STUDENTS  I’m going to go onto BBC bytesize and look at some revision websites. I’m on ‘Cause the GSCEs are coming and I have to revise for that. I use Facebook and MSN. Sometimes I look at history but today I’m going to look at English. I used to have Bebo and Hi-5 but I deleted all those because it’s too much. If I’m working on Saturday, Sunday I spend three to four hours just on the computer on websites. My mum takes away my laptop. She has to take it away so I start revision. I’m going to look at English literature, poems from different cultures. Every day when I come home I have about an hour or so just to do whatever and then she’ll take it away and I have to do work.

KENAN MALIK  Gurnoor, Mariam, Novjita, Rohit, Raja and Jiyanshu from
Villiers High School. They’re all immensely hard-working children, who take their school work and the upcoming GCSEs seriously and who use the internet as an essential tool of their education. They cannot conceive of a world without the world wide web. Yet even such digital natives have mixed feelings about the impact of new technology on their lives. Are their worries justified? There’s a lot of data on the web. But surprisingly little data on how we actually use that information. One of the biggest research projects exploring our use of the Internet is taking place at the Department of Information Studies, University College London.

DAVID CLARK  Every time you look at a page on the web it will write a record to the log file, we’ve got a whole set of log files here.

KENAN MALIK  David Clark using ‘deep log’ techniques to explore the online behaviour patterns of the Google generation. The UCL researchers have been able to track the behaviours of tens of millions of web users. Head of the project is Professor David Nicholas.

DAVID NICHOLAS We’re seeing patterns where people tend to be searching horizontally rather than vertically. We call it a power browsing form of behaviour. It’s where they’re looking at everything rather than looking at something in detail. A good way of trying to describe it is by
flicking. Someone’s looking at a television with a remote. They have now 500 channels LAUGH and they flick from channel to channel to channel. Because so much is going on, they have so much choice. As they get bored with one, they look at another because that’s the nature of the game. And when I question my daughter Victoria about this she said Dad I’m watching it all.

KENAN MALIK  Would you also say we’re moving into a culture where what is enjoyable is the flicking, rather than the obtaining of the information?

DAVID NICHOLAS  Absolutely. I go online to avoid reading. I go online to view. And we’ve got loads and loads of examples. The longer an article is, the less likely it is to be read, and the more likely it is for the abstract to be read. Just think about yourself. Whenever you do searching. You sit there. You do a job maybe for 5 minutes on a site and suddenly you think have I got any emails? What about my holiday? Did I remember that? And you will move round that space. So that’s why the average time spent on a site is less than a minute. What can you do with 50 seconds? You can’t do much can you?

VILLIERS STUDENTS  It distracts me quite a lot from just general schoolwork and revision. Come home from school if I’m doing work on the computer I’ll log on to MSN. I’ll go onto MSN and Youtube. I’ll log on to the computer the first thing I’ll do, I’ll go to MSN. Waste time. And then I’ll try and do my work. I’ll just try and do my work but if someone opens a conversation with me then I’ll reply. It distracts me a lot from my work. That’s how I get distracted. When I’ve got exams coming up I try and cut down and go for just an hour. Then I’ll just sign out cause I’m fed up with people talking to me and I need to do my work.

KENAN MALIK  Distraction. Waste of time. Bad habit. The children seem to feel much the same about new technology as David Nicholas. Less multitasking than multislacking. But appearances can be deceptive, says Canadian researcher Don Tapscott, author of the bestseller Wikinomics. He thinks digital natives should worry less about their brains being distracted by gossip and games than about their minds being brainwashed by the prejudices of fogeyish adults.

DON TAPSCOTT  Bob Dylan: 'there’s something going on here and you don’t know what it is' LAUGHS and I think we fear what we don’t understand. And fear gets in the way of doing the right thing.

KENAN MALIK  Tapscott was founder of the international think tank New Paradigm, is chairman of the nGeneration Innovation Network and has directed a $9m project on Internet collaboration.

DON TAPSCOTT  The big insight I guess is that this is the first generation to be bathed in bits. And time online is not taking away from hanging out with your friends, learning the piano, talking to your parents or doing your homework. It’s taken away from television. In the US the baby boomers growing up watched 24 hours a week of TV. And this generation, their kids, watch less TV and they watch it differently.

KENAN MALIK  In what way?

DON TAPSCOTT  They come home and they turn on their computer and they’re in three different windows and chatting on the cellphone and listening to mp3 files and they’re doing their homework. The TV may be going in the background but it’s sort of like passive media, muzak. And when they’re online, rather than being the passive recipients of somebody else’s video, they’re reading and thinking and organising and collaborating and composing their thoughts and scrutinising and authenticating and telling their stories, even with video games, having to remember things, develop strategies. After your DNA, the number 1 factor affecting what your brain is like is how you spend your time during adolescence. And if you spend your time 24 hours a week watching TV you get a certain kind of brain. And if you spend your time doing all this complex information handling, multitasking activity, that affects your brain as well.

KENAN MALIK  The idea of new technology ‘rewiring the brain’ sounds like something from Alien meets The Stepford Wives. In fact, the neuroscientist Maryanne Woolf points out, it’s something brains do all the time. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the science of reading, her book Proust and the Squid explored the ways in which reading affects brain structures.

MARYANNE WOLF  Human beings were never born to read. We were born to speak. We were born to see, smell, hear, but never read. What the human brain had to do was to rearrange its existing parts. You can actually tell in brain imaging whether a reader is a brand new reader or a fluent reader. There’s all kinds of wonderful work done by researchers who are showing that we actually take a different route, in other words the brain is changing, the actual neurons are changing as we learn to read.

KENAN MALIK  To say that brains are being rewired, in other words, is simply to say that brains are affected by experience. But while Maryanne Woolf may be sanguine about the idea of neurons rearranging themselves, she’s nevertheless still fearful of the impact of new technology.

MARYANNE WOLF  I think we’re in a moment of great transition and I cannot prophesy the future, I can only say that I’ve become a reading worrier. My worry is that the child who will be so immersed in digital media will really have the benefit of only part of that entire reading circuit, rather than a deeper probative function of that information, the going beyond the information given.

VILLIERS STUDENTS  I just don’t like reading. I haven’t read a book recently but I’ve read a lot of books. I spend a lot more time rather than reading a book. Books use better language and I learn new words. And say I didn’t understand something in a book I would go and look it up in the dictionary and understand. But if I find something hard to understand online I just close the programme and just go on MSN and get distracted easily and just go off the topic. Yeah. I do a lot of reading on the web. Maybe that’s why I think I’ve done my daily dosage of reading so I don’t have to really read a book. Books definitely challenge you more. Maybe not enough because the writing on the internet is always different. Like it will always be like gossip and stuff you know and they don’t write in the best English they could and it’s not that good.

KENAN MALIK  Children from Villiers High School. Remember these are not slackers but highly intelligent, well-motivated children. They fully understand the importance of reading and the value of books. And yet, the more they use the Web, the less they read in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps the very nature of reading on the Web – flicking and bouncing – makes it impossible to indulge in the pre-Web sit-down-quietly-and-absorb-a-book kind of reading. Perhaps the pessimists are right to worry that the Internet is making us more stupid. Jonathan Douglas is director of the National Literacy Trust, a charity that aims to change lives through improving literacy. They’ve analysed the extensive research on the reading habits of young people and identified a key question: are children reading for reading’s sake?

JONATHAN DOUGLAS  When you read for pleasure the motivation’s intrinsic, it’s not extrinsic: when you read for pleasure you’re actually being propelled onwards by some inner interest in the text, So those children who read for pleasure by the age of 15 were those young people who had actually internalized the ability to engage in lifelong learning and have self-propelled learning. I think the big challenge now is if we’re reinventing reading in a new way, does the reading which we’re reinventing through the internet actually allow that deep engagement with text and that deep engagement with an intrinsic motivation for development? I think it does for many readers.

KENAN MALIK  I know that my reading has changed, the way I read books has changed, since I’ve started getting most of my information from the web. That I tend not to have such great concentration. I tend to be more distracted when I read books. I don’t sit down with a book for hours at an end as I used to. Now doesn’t that say something about the impact of the internet on our reading capacity?

JONATHAN DOUGLAS  Yes, very interestingly. It may be that your reading is becoming more efficient. It might be that actually your skills of scanning and your ability to locate pertinent information is actually increased. It might not be a negative effect.

KENAN MALIK  Reading efficiently is, of course, not the same as reading intensely or thinking deeply. You want to read a menu or a timetable or a newspaper efficiently. But surely you need a different kind of reading when you open the pages of The Origin of Species or Middlemarch. That may be true, says Stephen Fry, but why should we see it as a problem?

STEPHEN FRY  Very often people oddly put books against the Internet. Man’s first communication with man, as far as we know, is obviously through the spoken voice and literature was first an oral thing – poetry and everything sprang from let’s imagine groups of men and women around the fire telling each other stories, telling each other fables and myths and explaining the world in different ways and reporting their hunting incidents and all the… all the rest of it. And it took a very long time for a technology to arise, making impressions on wax tablets and staining papyrus and so on, and then illuminating manuscripts; and eventually, thanks to Gutenberg of course, movable type and print was disseminated at great speed. And it seems to me that yes books are a marvelous way, a new way, an absolutely new way in the human race - I mean they’re only five hundred years old, if that - of telling stories. And they’re a good way and we love them. I love them. The two are not in opposition. They complement each other quite beautifully. And it seems to me insane to think that somehow they’re betraying Goethe and the great panoply of Western civilisation simply by engaging fully in
the life of the net and the computer.

KENAN MALIK  You came to the web with an understanding of old-fashioned literacy, if you like, and you’d read a whole book before the Google search as it were. Has that made a difference in the way you approach the web and would say a generation who don’t have that kind of literature background, would they approach the web in a different way?

STEPHEN FRY  That’s a very interesting point and I accept that completely. I’m sure there is a difference. There is rationally likely to be a difference, put it that way, but I doubt you can ever find any sentence describing how human learning has degraded now that isn’t congruent to a similar sentence written at the rise of the novel and how people were no longer reading sermons and no longer reading classical literature but were reading novels from subscription libraries in the 18th century. The literature at the time in the 18th, late 18th and early 19th centuries, describing the contempt that the learned establishment had for the rise of the novel, and then of course later with the rise of the penny dreadfuls and sensational literature as more and more people came to read it. There was a great cry of despair at how there would be nothing but illiteracy in the world, or at least not illiteracy so much as a kind of refusal, an inability to engage in proper, serious study. And we hear the cry again.

STEPHEN MALIK  Stephen Fry. For his fellow web optimist Don Tapscott, not only are today’s students no less literate than those in the past, they are in fact much better placed to take the lead in their own education.

DON TAPSCOTT  The model of learning has been around for centuries. I call it broadcast learning. I’m a teacher, I have knowledge. You’re a student, you’re an empty vessel, get ready, here it comes! LAUGHS. And your goal is to take it into short-term working memory, to practice, through repetition to bring deeper cognitive structures so that you can recall it to me when I test you. Drill and kill. Well this is an inappropriate model.

KENAN MALIK  But isn’t it important for both the student and the teacher to recognise that there is a difference between the teacher and the student, the teacher does know more than the student, the student is there to learn?

DON TAPSCOTT  Er – wrong! LAUGHS. First of all this is the time, the first time in human history that children are an authority on something really important. Today the 11-year-old at the breakfast table is an authority on this digital revolution that’s changing every institution in society. But that’s not the issue. The issue is what is the model of pedagogy. How do you get people to learn. And even more broadly, what’s the purpose of learning? Is it to fill kids’ heads with facts which they can recall in tests. Well that might have been appropriate for my generation and when you were graduated you were set for life. So what you knew was what counted. Today when you’re graduated you’re set for 15 minutes. So it’s not just what you know when you graduate, it’s your capacity to think and to solve problems and communicate and to learn life long, to reinvent your knowledge base multiple times.

TARA BRABAZON  He’s dreaming. He is dreaming.

KENAN MALIK  Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at Brighton University.

TARA BRABAZON  I think student-centred learning really denies what a teacher does. It denies our leadership role in the classroom and it has never been more important for us to construct a high quality curriculum, to assess with rigour, and to really intervene in taken for granted practices in education because one of the great problems with student centred learning is that it allows students to explore their own culture, whereas actually where education comes from is moving outside of your culture, transgressing yourself, transgressing your boundaries and learning about other people.

KENAN MALIK  You’ve banned your students from using Google and Wikipedia, I hear. Why?

TARA BRABAZON  Yes, well I do ban my students, my first year students from using Google and Wikipedia because. It’s now the time where we need to ensure that students are reading at the standard we require at universities and they’re writing at the standard that we require at universities. When I’m saying you don’t need Google, you don’t because there’s a thing called a library and also there are so many fantastic on and offline refereed publications that they need to be engaging with that Google won’t give them that material.

KENAN MALIK  The debate between Tara Brabazon and Don Tapscott is not simply one about educational methods. It gets to the heart of the question we are posing in this programme: what has been the impact and influence of new technology on our ability to absorb and evaluate information? The optimism of Don Tapscott pre-supposes that digital natives – young people who have grown up with the Internet - know best how to use it. But do they? David Nicholas of University College London.

DAVID NICHOLAS  Anybody born digital just doesn’t have that sense there was a Whittaker’s Almanac, there was a Who’s Who, or even a sense of collection where somebody’s gathered information together around certain sorts of principles and it’s all been vetted and you know when you enter that place you know all of that’s solid, because the information intermediary has organised it for you or the publisher gives it a stamp. In a digital world you can’t tell what is authenticated, what is not, where it’s from. Nobody knows. There’s too many players in that space. So they don’t have any of that. So while I can manage in the virtual world because I have greater access, I get more sources, but I have a framework for understanding those and measuring. Young people of today are not provided with that framework.

KENAN MALIK   In a sense then you are making the opposite point to the point that is usually made that is young people get more out of the digital world because they know how to use it, they’ve grown up with it, whereas older people who haven’t grown up with it don’t know how to use it and therefore get less out of it. You’re saying almost the opposite.

DAVID NICHOLAS  I am saying the opposite. I’m saying I’m empowered by it. I think a lot of people are being disenfranchised by it. Are not able to benefit from the fruits of an information society because they don’t know how to handle that vast amount of information which they have to make sense of because you have to take a choice.

KENAN MALIK  Is it inevitable that the development of new technology has to go hand in hand with the development of this new culture, of the way we use new technology?

DAVID NICHOLAS  Government and everybody’s fast-forwarding us to be e-citizens. We’ll vote, we’ll do everything, our health, whatever else. It’s very convenient and everybody feels somehow it’s good. But what happens if you’re pouring people who have no concept of information and searching and weren’t brought up with any of the understandings of what represents authoritative, what is a fact, how do we know it? You fast forward them into that virtual space, what are you doing to them? Surely you’re creating massive problems for society. Because nobody is thinking about – how are they making sense of it. Can they make sense? How many people are failing in this world? This is really frightening. Who’s looking at this, who’s testing it out?

KENAN MALIK  David Nicholas’ work suggests not just that we may have to rethink the government’s whole e-strategy but more explosively that we need to turn conventional thinking about new technology on its head. The very people most at home on the web seem also the ones least able to make use of it. The Google generation has not been rewired into stupidity. But neither has it been born to be cyber clever. Precisely because they are digital natives, they lack the skills that can only be acquired from a more traditional education. And it’s not just reading or researching that the Google generation is poor at. Think that digital natives are great at multitasking? Think again, says Martin Westwell, a British scientist who’s now Director of the Centre for Science Education at Flinders University in Australia. Originally trained as a biologist, much of Professor Westwell’s research has explored the ability of the brain to make use of new technologies.

MARTIN WESTWELL  Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. What we do is switching our attention very quickly between doing one thing at a time but interspersed. Now what we find is that actually young people are less able to do that because of their brain development. The area of their brain that deals with this switching between two tasks isn’t as well developed in younger people until their early twenties compared to older people. So actually older people are much better at multi-tasking than young people and I’ve done some research to demonstrate that, to show that. Younger people claim that they can stay on task when they’ve got multi-media, so they might be you know trying to read a book or do their homework whilst they’ve got music playing and whilst they might be instant messaging friends or you know something like that, so they’re consumers of different media at the same time. They may claim that they can multi-task in that way, but the evidence is telling us that they can’t and actually the performance on the task at hand, particularly the primary task - let’s say doing their homework - is actually diminished by trying to deal with all these multiple inputs at the same time.

KENAN MALIK  Martin Westwell. So where does this leave the debate about the relationship between technology and intelligence? In every generation there have always those who read deeply and those who don’t. Today, though, even the most intellectually motivated students seem to lack basic skills that previous generations took for granted. The research of David Nicholas and of Martin Westwell seems to provide backing for Tara Brabazon’s controversial ban on her first-year students using Google and Wikipedia. But there’s more to the problem, she suggests, than simply giving people the right educational skills.

TARA BRABAZON  I would never blame the students. My students are not doing anything that the rest of us are not doing. I don’t believe in phrases like the Google Generation and Digital Natives. I think the whole culture is engaging in very superficial er searching. I think we’re all like grazing information. Very few people are drilling down more deeply. So I think my students aren’t doing anything unusual. We’re all rewarded for being superficial, we’re all rewarded for not digging too deeply, not making people uncomfortable, but what we have to do at university is challenge people and get people a bit uncomfortable and move out of their comfort zone.

KENAN MALIK  Do you think Google makes them stupid?

TARA BRABAZON  You know what, the Google Generation isn’t dumbing down; everybody’s dumbing down. The Google Generation aren’t skim reading; everybody’s skim reading. So it’s an absolute cop out to blame the young people for anything.

KENAN MALIK  Old-fashioned abilities to read deeply, research thoroughly and think broadly were embedded in a culture that valued such reading, researching and thinking. One does not have to be nostalgic about a mythical golden age to recognize that that culture itself has become eroded. Flicking and bouncing may be a reflection of the character not of video games or the Internet but of the culture that we now inhabit, a culture that increasingly celebrates banality and shallowness. Perhaps we should worry less about the technology, and more about the culture that shapes the way we use it.

As for me, I’m off to Twitter. Join me – if your brain hasn’t been turned to mush already, that is.