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The Internet is Frying Our Brains?: Keep Calm and Carry On with Research Please

If you just skim the headlines, it seems like we might be screwed: “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warnings to parents from top neuroscientist,” “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilising the human mind: Greenfield warns social networking sites are changing children’s brains, resulting in selfish and attention deficient young people,” “Oxford Scientist: Facebook Might Ruin Minds” or going straight for the punch, “Is Social Networking Killing You?

Got your attention? These articles were based on an interview with Oxford neuroscientist Lady Susan Greenfield with the Daily Mail, in which she put forth some hypotheses about online social interactions and fractured attention spans. Similar concerns about youth and their reliance on digital networking have been trotted out by the press and in books on several occasions, but Lady Greenfield’s prominence in the neuroscience has merited her substantial coverage. The crux of her argument is this:

If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder

As a neuroscience student, I tend to approach articles about the brain with my critical scientist hat on, so while reading the previous linked articles, I kept looking for evidence backing up these claims. I found none. In Greenfield’s quote above, her language clearly shows that she is too only speculating about the harmful effects. This is fine – it’s how science moves forward: we put forth hypotheses, but we have to test them before coming to conclusions. In a follow up interview with The Guardian, she admits this too. (audio)

Interviewer: Is this based on your suspicions, Lady Greenfield, as a leading neuroscientist or is it based on evidence that’s actually been collated?
Greenfield: No, the whole point of my making this speech in the House of Lords is to draw attention to this issue and to hope that people will start to set up investigations.

I am entirely behind the hypothesis that increased social interactions online is changing the way our brains process information, but there hasn’t been enough research to corroborate these claims. Many of the issues Lady Greenfield brings up have been dealt with in blog posts here on digital information overload, drawing on our own experiences and what little research that has been done. But for newspapers to be running such inflated headlines that mislead readers into believing neuroscientists have actually proven such effects is nothing but alarmist.

connectomeTo put into perspective how wildly speculative it is to talk about “rewiring” the brain, as ars technica frames the issue, let’s see how much we already know about the wiring of the brain. Not much. The cutting-edge of connectomics – the study of how neurons are connected with one another – is being carried out by Jeff Lichtman here at Harvard using novel imaging techniques on the mouse brain. (We are nowhere close to being able to study the human brain with the same degree of detail.) Earlier this month, a paper was published with the first ever connectome, or neural map, from a mammalian nervous system. What this connectome (left) shows is all the neurons connected to one tiny muscle that controls the movement of a mouse’s ear (photo credit: HarvardScience). This is as much as we know so far of wiring in the mammalian brain. The human brain comprises an estimated 100 billion neurons, each of which connects to on average 7000 neurons. The simple understanding of the brain’s circuitry is a daunting task in itself, let alone understanding how these circuits develop. There are talented neurobiologists working on these questions – I happen to work in the lab of one of them – but we certainly not ready to make grand claims about the brain.

I definitely agree there are interesting questions that remain unanswered, allowing for plenty of room for potential research, even if this research won’t be easy. Longitudinal research on the long term effect of digital interactions will take years, even decades, before producing relevant data. Additionally these studies are incredibly hard to implement, as where do you get a control group of study subjects who never interface with a screen? Greenfield is right to ask for further research, but let’s wait for research before making solid claims. The issues aren’t exclusively for neuroscientists though – psychologists, policymakers, parents, even us digital natives, we all have a stake in this.

– Sarah Zhang

The Digital Classroom: First Encounters

How viable is the digital classroom?

I’ve only ever approached this question from the perspective of a student. For me, it’s always been a personal question rather than a policy decision. It’s taken four (four!) years of college to get things straight: will I really be able to devote my full attention to a lecture or discussion with a laptop in front of me? If the lecture is slow, will I be better off staying awake by accessing more information channels, or watching my mind start to wander as I try to focus on just one?

This semester, though, I’ve found myself on the other side of things. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working as a teaching assistant for a class at Harvard Extension School. It’s about Technologies and Politics of Control, and offered in association with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (also home to the Digital Natives Project). Tonlycompletely digital; many of them are taking the class at a distance. In order to instruct those students with some level of parity, we’ve been using all sorts of strategies. In the process, some of the ideas and suspicions I’ve had about the digital classroom are quickly confronting reality. Incidentally, so am I. A few things I’ve learned so far:

If students are motivated, the digital classroom is quite viable. For the two hours every week that class is held in person, it’s my job to man the webcast (switching between computer-view and professor-view as needed) and watch the question tool, adding discussion points as they surface. The experience is completely engrossing for me; there are so many streams of information to manage at once. In a way, that multi-stream experience more closely matches the way I navigate the Internet on my own time. Managing 3+ information sources at once means that even when an attention switch occurs, it’s just switching to a different channel on the same topic. The discussion in last week’s question tool (a kind of class-wide chat room, with threaded discussions) was incredibly lively. Cultivating information overload during classtime, as strange as it sounds, seems like a way to keep students more engaged.

Interestingly, though, the digital classroom seems to work better when it’s all-digital: webcasted lecture, live chat discussion, real-time class wiki updates. The dozen or so students who sit in the physical classroom every week all bring their laptops, and seem to take notes assiduously. But they’re far less likely than the distance students to participate in the question tool, or add links to the class wiki during class itself. It’s the students who are sitting at desks—at home or staying late at work—who add the most to the online discussion. The goal of providing so many rich channels for real-time online interaction, after all, was originally to make the distance experience more closely approximate the in-class one. Ironically (and promisingly, at least for the future of distance education), I feel like I know the question-tool students and their interests better than the students I meet in class. In class, it’s a fleeting hello. Online, it’s lively discussion, affirmation, debate. The difference is striking.

A corollary of the all-digital advantage is the advantage that comes from having teaching staff dedicated to the digital front. I’m one of two teaching assistants for the class; it also has two professors, and enjoys substantial support from the rest of the staff and fellows at the Berkman Center. In terms of student-to-teacher ratio, even counting distance students, that’s close to 10:1. The class works, in part, because the teaching staff can pay so much attention to all the many online streams of information that are happening. Especially thinking about what the world of teaching is like in elementary, middle, and high schools—even in most colleges—you’d be hard-pressed to have that many teachers devoting their attention to a group of students all at the same time. It’s an anomaly. Discussion on the question tool is lively, because everyone’s involved, and there are two hours per week when everyone can involve themselves in it simultaneously. By contrast, my instant-messaging office hours are often quiet. When there’s no real-time event to pull students together, they often don’t pull together at all.

These are just some preliminary observations, but I hope more surface as the semester progresses. So, what do you think? In your experience, how viable is the digital classroom? And, more importantly, what practices and tools can improve its viability? I’m currently preparing for a panel at SXSW Interactive in a few weeks on a panel called Blackboards Or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the digital classroom and technology in education more generally; I’d be especially grateful for any reports from the front lines of trying to teach younger Digital Natives, outside of the college setting. If you’d be willing to share your observations in the comments, or even email me — at dkimball a t fas dot harvard dot edu — I would truly appreciate it.

Building Communities: Tumblr and Freedom of Expression

What a week for controversy! As the hubbub over Facebook’s of terms of services is dying down, Tumblr just weathered its own round of controversy over its ToS. Tumblr hasn’t permeated the mainstream as much as Facebook, but it’s remarkable how much the situations mirror each other. In both cases, a sudden top-down policy decision sparked a user revolt that led to the company backpedaling and reverting to their original policies.

Last week, Tumblr suspended five accounts, known as anonyblogs, which functioned solely to reblog posts with snide and mocking commentary. On Tuesday, the Tumblr staff posted an entry on their official tumblelog explaining their decision and adding a new section to their Content Policy making harassment a la anonyblogs grounds for suspension. What followed was an outpouring of commentary especially among those decrying suppression of free speech. The New York Times Lede blog has a superb, link-rich account of the events that along with incisive commentary. Yesterday – a day after its first public acknowledgment of the issue — Tumblr reversed the changes in its content policy with an essentially “I’m sorry, we screwed up” post by its founder David Karp.

There are several interesting issues at play here. Seen in parallel with Facebook’s ToS controversy, it is a clear marker of users demanding more accountability. (If you think about it, it is pretty remarkable: here users are taking advantage of a free service and they actually are telling what the companies providing said free service to them can and cannot do.) Both companies were called on to defend their actions in public and ended up concluding the users were right. Also notable is how quickly the events transpired – the turnaround was a matter of a few days. Transparency, whether it’s with the government or private companies, seems to be much in these days.

There’s another question on my mind though, and that’s why would Tumblr seek to suspend accounts that were nasty, though not illegal. And even if its users were posting illegal content, Tumblr as a website is not liable for content generated by its users because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is also at the heart of the still-going AutoAdmit case. The crux of the matter is then, what does Tumblr want to be – a platform or a community?

Ironically, it’s the very features of community building that facilitate the existence of anonyblogs. Following someone – much like Twitter and what’s now been implemented in Blogger – allows you to see all their updates in your Dashboard. Reblogging of posts is especially interesting because it leaves an electronic trail for each post. (See photo) If someone was reblogging your content, for example, everyone who follows you sees their posts as well. So anonyblogs takes advantage of following and reblogging to be a particularly pernicious to their targets.

Because of its size, Tumblr is also small enough to foster a sense of community among its users. There was a Tumblr Secret Santa exchange last December and location-based Tumblr Meet-ups are fairly common. (In fact, there was supposed to be a Harvard tumblr meet-up last night – sadly I couldn’t make it!) Try to envision a Facebook meetup—uh, that’s just like going to class. In addition, its user base is still fairly homogenous in demographic and interests, which is also the thrust of many meta-jokes in the community. Of course, this is all likely to change as Tumblr grows, much in the way Facebook grew from Ivy League students to encompass everyone and their mom.

In the end, Tumblr decided its users should be in charge of moderating their own communities. A Block tool was rolled out – frankly, I’m surprised this wasn’t in place earlier – that allows you to ignore certain users. This is quite similar to the way Facebook rushed out user controls for News Feed after the initial outcry. Rather than enforcing communities, Tumblr is giving users control of their own.

– Sarah Zhang

Terms of Service: Facebook’s Switcharoo and the Importance of Knowing Your Rights

Over the past few days, my information sphere (comprising a haphazard cross-section of RSS feeds, Twitter, and Tumblr) has been dominated by one slightly alarming piece of news: Facebook has changed its Terms of Service. And now it has the rights to everything, ever.

“Everything, ever” might be an exaggeration, but it’s not much of one. In an important article by Amanda French comparing the Terms of Service for MySpace, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter with Facebook’s revised ToS, she concludes that Facebook’s terms are “extraordinarily grabby and arrogant,” consisting of the following gems (excerpted from Amanda’s article):

1. Facebook apparently wants to keep all its rights to your stuff after you remove it from Facebook, and even after you delete your Facebook account.
2. Facebook claims it can do whatever it wants with your content if you put a Share on Facebook link on your web page.
3. Other sites point out in their terms of service that you still own your content: Facebook doesn’t mention that little fact.

The technology professionals, college students, and academics I interact with online are outraged. Some are even considering abandoning Facebook altogether (even though doing so would only “protect” their future content, and under the new ToS would do nothing to salvage their rights to the content already posted.) The outrage will circulate, I’m sure, for the next few days. It may even make some major news outlets, if it hasn’t already.

But then what? With 175 million users already, and another 600,000 joining every day, Facebook can afford to lose a few naysayers. Of the people left behind, most will never even hear about the Terms of Service, let alone read them. They will continue to use the service, regardless of the terms, because the change was largely invisible. Facebook risked the ephemeral wrath of the techno-obsessed in order to implement a much more insidious and permanent shift. It is eroding the information rights of users who might not even know they have them. And as long as Facebook remains the place where the un-techno-obsessed congregate, even the naysayers will, for the most part, remain in the system. Losing the social graph that Facebook has aggregated—a social graph that, unlike most places on the Internet, actually has a shot at mirroring real-world interpersonal connections because so many are on it—will ultimately prove more frightening than the greedy implications of Facebook’s new Terms of Service.

These new terms, though grim, may indeed not be worth quitting Facebook over; that calculus is one that each user will have to make for himself. But it’s hard to make the right decision when you don’t know you’re making a decision at all; Facebook’s quiet ToS shift means that it will escape most everyone’s attention, and suddenly they’ve “agreed” to something they never really agreed to.

Education for a digital age requires not just knowing how to use the tools, but knowing how they’re using you. Facebook’s changed Terms of Service, and Amanda French’s article linked above, offer an ideal starting point for discussion.

Update 02/19: Facebook has reverted to their previous terms of service. That was a quick turnaround!

Upcoming: PBS Teachers LIVE!: Teaching and Learning with Digital Natives Webinar with John Palfrey

This just in: DN’s own John Palfrey will be giving a “webinar” in the PBS Teachers LIVE! series on February 26 at 8 p.m.! Details from PBS Teachers and Classroom 2.0 below.

PBS Teachers and Classroom 2.0 is delighted to have John Palfrey, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, as our guest for “Teaching and Learning with Digital Natives”, the next webinar in the PBS Teachers LIVE! series to be held Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.

In this upcoming webinar, participants will learn about “digital natives”, whom Palfrey describes as a “select” population born after 1980 that processes and sees the world very differently than generations prior. The characteristics of these students demand a new paradigm for engaging learners. The discussion will also focus on how educators can become familiar with the technologies of digital natives and use these technologies to compliment their pedagogy.

How Do I Register?
Simply sign up at to become a PBS Teacher and you will receive a webinar invite the week of the event.

Intense Togetherness: Paper, Screens, and Reading

Screens aren’t paper: obvious, but intensely forgettable. Since I’ve found my way into a very odd class this semester—an investigation of paper as technology—I’ve been remembering this more often.

Early Sunday evening, my dad and I got lost in Allston. More than once, I subtly blamed this occurrence on my sadly un-smart phone. (“If only I had an iPhone, this never would have happened!…”) As we walked along, stepping gingerly over sidewalks covered in icy craters, I thought about the conversation we’d had earlier in the day about the special qualities of paper. Though I feel a certain fondness for paper, the list I generated was nowhere near as extensive as his, which included the following advantages:

-Can go from having a very small surface area (perfect for tucking way) to having a very large surface area (unfolded, perfect for reading.)
-Disposable, or at least easily replaceable. (Unlike the devices we casually carry around, worth hundreds or thousands of dollars each.)
-Pleasantly tactile. Also, easy to view in daylight.

Though this topic has a lot to do with the class I happen to be taking right now, it also has everything to do with a bigger question: what comes next? With the news swirling around these days—imminent death of newspapers, the impending arrival of the new Kindle model, and the constant intrigue of Digital Natives and how in the world they get their information—the showdown between screens and paper is here.

Last week, Sarah wrote about one vector of this situation—the Kindle, and the question of whether it’s convenient or too convenient. Sarah ended up concluding that the lo-fi impulse is worth following, at least on occasion. But here’s what I’m wondering: will Digital Natives twenty-plus years younger than us even have a lo-fi impulse?

One clue comes from an article by the excellent Virginia Heffernan, whom Sarah also cited. Heffernan, sitting down with her 3-year-old son to “read” an e-book via laptop, is confronted by her son’s acute awareness of the screen-paper divide. The story finished, her son remarkes that “It’s not a book…It’s more like a movie or a video.” Heffernan realizes, then, that “My immersion in the Kindle is not (to him) an example of impressive role-model literacy. It’s Mom e-mailing, or texting, or for all he knows playing video games.” The activity of “reading,” for her son, is tied to intense togetherness: something he already senses and understands. “Reading” is when you set everything else aside, remove distractions, and spend quality time in each other’s presence. Bringing a device back into the picture is more than counter-productive; it’s nonsensical.

With the advent of RSS readers and Twitter and Tumblr, I’ve found a universe of to-do lists that, at last, I can actually make progress on. When all that’s required to check something off the list is to read it, then that—that’s something I can do. And usually it is what I do, first, before anything else. The satisfaction of accomplishing something (anything) is often enough to carry me forward into whatever task comes next. Just as often, though, it’s enough to pull me under into the ocean of information that the internet harbors.

Like Sarah, I’ve been trying to take time for lo-fi. The more I try to read on paper, though, the more I find I still yearn toward the connectedness I feel on the screen. For me, as a hyperdigital college student, Twitter and Facebook are the places where my far-flung friends and I “make time for each other.” When I read a sentence that strikes me, whether on paper or on the screen, I can’t help but want to share the moment. Heffernan and her son sit on the couch together, reading picture books; I sit in my dorm room, reading about typography and catching myself reaching out to my keyboard.

Screens and paper, and the possibilities and constraints behind them, lend themselves to different architectures of experience. The information we pull in has a great deal to do with what we’re thinking; what we’re thinking has everything to do with who we are. To share that with one another seems vital; the technology that enables it, incidental.

Kindle: Lo-fi v. High Tech

With Amazon’s new Kindle set to debut next week, the web is abuzz with rumors about Kindle 2.0. Will it have web browsing? Will there be networking features with other Kindles? Will it at least be a little less clunky?

When the original Kindle debuted in fall 2007, Jesse wrote an insightful post arguing that despite the tempting comparison to iPods, the Kindle is really a digital immigrant’s device. It’s designed to mimic the tactile and visual sensation of reading a book, and it has none of the slick elegance of an iPhone. Far short of paradigm-shifting, it looked back instead of forwards. These characteristics opened up the Kindle to criticism, but it hasn’t kept the device from gaining a loyal following. Virginia Heffernan, writing for the NY Time’s The Medium, has a paean of sorts to the very “old-fashionedness” of a Kindle:

Unlike the other devices that clatter in my shoulder bag, the Kindle isn’t a big greedy magnet for the world’s signals. It doesn’t pulse with clocks, blaze with video or squall with incoming bulletins and demands. It’s almost dead, actually. Lifeless. Just a lump in my hands or my bag, exiled from the crisscrossing of infinite cybernetworks. It’s almost like a book.

It’s true, the Internet can be demanding. New email, unread counts, missed calls, text message – they gush at you in a constant stream. It’s comforting, sometimes, to hold in your hands something finite and discrete, something that doesn’t ask you to respond right away. Virginia Heffernan again:

A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares. The Kindle screen — nonbacklighted “electronic paper” that requires little energy — looks dusty, like newsprint.

These extolments of Kindle’s paperness reminded of Jack Cheng’s “In Praise of Lo-Fi,” in which he asks what happens to deep contemplation in a world blanketed in wi-fi and wireless power – a world where connectivity can’t be turned off. He turns to the opposite: lo-fi.

Lo-fi time, I call it. And it’s about blocking off time for sitting still and letting your mind wander. Or going for walks without necessarily trying to get anywhere. I very rarely take my Macbook to cafes anymore and sometimes I conveniently “forget” my phone at home. Even though most of my own work ends up living digitally, there are plenty of things to do that don’t require a computer.

I often find myself in search of lo-fi these days. At first, I tried to battle technology with technology. Leechblock or an user account with “parental” controls disabling Internet, but I found them too easily circumvented when surrounded by multiple web browsers and multiple computers. Even though many of my classes have online readings, I now print out and annotate them by hand, making sure to sit far away from any luminescent electronic screens. When writing a paper, I sometimes shut my laptop and take a walk outside to ruminate by myself. Those with better willpower can take less drastic measures, but I’m too easily distracted.

When the new Kindle does debut, it’ll have to mediate two opposing tensions. One of innovation, it has to compete with all-capable gadgets like the iPhone. On the other hand, it should still be a reading experience, not another portable computer. Will it combine the best or worst of both worlds? If I got a Kindle, I’m afraid I’ll be lured by easy downloads and accumulate a backlog of books much like the way unlistened podcasts have taken over my iPod. Or perhaps, it’ll have better wireless integration and finally get me to read the articles I’ve saved via Instapaper. Convenient or too convenient? What are your thoughts on an electronic reader?

-Sarah Zhang

The New Liberal Arts: Call for Submissions

Our blogging colleagues over at Snarkmarket are publishing a book, and they’ve issued a challenge to the blogosphere: invent the new liberal arts.

The challenge, from their post on the project:

It’s 2009. A generation of digital natives is careening towards college. The economy is rebooting itself weekly. We have new responsibilities now — as employees, citizens, and friends — and we have new capabilities, too. The new liberal arts equip us for a world like this. But… what are they?

They’re accepting pitches for entries in the “course catalog” of this new world, and we’d love to see an avalanche of submissions from the Digital Natives community. You can add your ideas in the comments here!

Digital First

When I first started investigating the Internet, I spent what felt like hours every day on Lifehacker and BoingBoing. I downloaded every new program; I signed up for every new service. I didn’t always know what to do with them, but I was so eager to experience novelty. Free novelty! The programs felt like toys.

Not everyone works this way. Not most adults, and not even most Digital Natives. One of the questions we frequently field at the Digital Natives project is “How technosavvy are these kids, really?” Well: some of them are, some of them aren’t. Some teenagers run their own servers, make a sizeable income selling iPhone applications, and have laptops littered with downloaded trial programs. Most, though, just tend to their collection of mp3s and instant message with friends. The Internet affords everyone the opportunity to be geeky. Even with such low barriers to entry, though, few choose to go there.

Here’s the thing: most Digital Natives don’t treat cruising the Internet as an activity in itself. It’s a tool you use when you want to do something else. What sets Digital Natives apart is their willingness to go to the Internet first—when they have a question, when they want to do something cool, when they want to find someone to hang out with. For them, the Internet is a first resort, rather than a last resort. This skews their behavior tremendously, and also skews adoption curves.

I’m lucky enough to have a few incredibly smart, digitally reluctant friends. They sometimes marvel at my love for computers and the Internet, but they also know that I’m always happy to answer any computer question, or offer about 5 different online tools to solve any problem. A little over a year ago, I introduced one of my friends to Etsy, the “online marketplace for handmade goods.” We admired a few necklaces, did some online window shopping together, and then closed our laptops.

I didn’t think about the incident again until recently, when that same friend announced that she was opening a jewelry store on Etsy. In a matter of days, she had put together her store, filled it with photographs of her jewelry, perused the Etsy forums to get a feel for the community, and purchased a domain name to redirect to her shop. Furthermore, she quickly figured out how to use all sorts of other online tools to promote her business and build an online identity to support it. The turnaround was insanely fast. In all our years of knowing each other, I’ve always been the one obsessed with the Internet. But all of a sudden, my friend’s the expert in a domain I barely understand.

I love that this happened, but what I love even more is that it could happen to anyone. It’s true that my friend has the blessing/curse of living around quite a few digital enthusiasts. But if she’d wanted to build an online jewelry shop and hadn’t known a single Internet-lover, the solution to her query would still have been only a search engine away.

Digital Natives don’t all want to be online experts. But they’ve grown up in a world where the tools to self-publish, self-promote, and self-entertain are free and abundant. The Internet is their go-to resource. As more Digital Natives start businesses and creative careers, those businesses and portfolios will be digital first, physical second. It’s the world they’ve grown up in; a world they’ll continue to build.