Friday, October 26, 2007

Thoughts: "The Outsourced Brain - New York Times"

The Outsourced Brain - New York Times by David Brooks. Read it here.
From the article: "...the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants."

I have been thinking a lot about the information age (vs. industrial age) and how technology is extending our minds (as it used to only extend out bodies). This op-ed really catches the essence of the current mind-extending possibilities of technology. Rest assured this is only the beginning... or is it?

Is it just the continuation of a trend that started when the first humans made the first tools?

McLuhan was the first to introduce me to the idea of extensions of ourselves (not personally, of course, but through his book "Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man") I was intrigued by his ideas (example: telephones are extensions of our voices), but it didn't really see technology extending my mind in my everyday life until I became dependent upon my cell phone and google to remember my friends phone numbers and where to find web pages and information that I want.

In the NYTimes op-ed (link above) Brooks claims that this mind-extension is liberating and blissful, but McLuhan often mentions that with extensions of man come amputations. Brooks can no longer navigate without his GPS and he feels zen about it, but what happens when the satellites go down? I am not comfortable with living in a world where I can't function without my tools. To use a historical example: the technology of guns extended mans ability to destroy people/things from afar but it amputated his ability to use a bow and arrow. What if then all the gunpowder ran out? As a pacifist I say all the better, but if people had a need for weapons they'd be screwed. Living in a time of transition from one technology to another this is the risk we face.

I hate to make this argument though because I hear it so often with regard to technology in education. Teachers say things like "why should we bring technology X into the classroom? Shouldn't we just stick with the old way of doing things?" Here is the rub, if you want to extend your mind you sometimes lose (amputate) an older way of doing things. I am sure there is a delicate balance between rushing headlong into adopting new extensions of ourselves and holding steadfast to tired old ways, but it is hard to know where to draw the line, especially within education when we are not only making the decision for ourselves, but for loads of children.

What I need is a good argument to convince educators that some technologies are more beneficial to students than traditional methods, others are not. Considering my argument against Brooks' GPS dependency, maybe I need to first convince myself.

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