[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > All Screens Are Not Created Equal

All Screens Are Not Created Equal

by Robert J. Sawyer

First published as an op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada's capital city, Friday, March 20, 2009; this is the definitive version of the text.

Copyright © 2009 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

We have an epidemic of attention deficit disorder — or, at least, we have an epidemic of diagnoses of that condition. And the culprit most often named: the use of computers.

But is there really something wrong with huge numbers of young people today? Has computer use rotted their brains? Or is it — perhaps — that there's something wrong with how we're defining normal?

Our psychological tests for measuring attention were developed between the 1950s and the 1990s. But that was an aberrant period in human history. It was the era of the boob tube and couch potatoes, of people sitting passively in front of television sets for hours on end. Now, in a world in which young people constantly shift their attention from one thing to another, we brand them as ill if they don't sit still in class.

But that's crazy. Prior to TV — going right back to our origins on the African savanna — we were always multitasking, simultaneously gathering, hunting, scanning the skies for eagles, scanning the grass for snakes, watching the horizon, and protecting our mates and children.

And now, thanks to the computer, we're back to multitasking again, in spades.

Oh, at first blush, one might say nothing has changed. We've just substituted one screen for another. But if we are to take anything from Marshall McLuhan's pioneering work on media, it is that screens are not created equal. The passivity of television has nothing in common with the interactivity of the computer.

And yet in our schools and universities, we expect our kids to be happy with passive consumption. Can we blame students for being restless under such circumstances? In other realms, we don't call being bored by the boring a disease; we call it taste.

But our teachers and professors drone on, essentially reading the textbook out loud. The lecture is an outdated mode of pedagogy that harks back to when schools were lucky to have a single copy of a text. We live now in a world of information richness, not scarcity. It's not our students who are failing us; it's our teachers.

Thankfully, at least at the best schools, that's starting to change. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently dispensed with its formerly giant introductory physics lecture courses in favour of smaller, hands-on workshops — an appropriate shift from teacher-centred to student-centred learning.

Like any brick-and-mortar enterprise, education has to revise its approach to embrace, rather than ignore, the online world. But instead we keep hearing that multitasking is bad for us; that doing several things at once means we don't do anything well.

Tell that to the kids who are creating videos, building websites, and publishing thousands of words of text each day: not only are they doing high-quality work, they are doing things on their own that it used to take large teams to accomplish. The complaints about multitasking are the last gasps of the couch-potato generation.

Just as pernicious as the canard about multitasking is the claim that Google is making us stupid. Again, the old model of learning — rote memorization — was a product of information scarcity. Does it really make sense to spend days in school memorizing the names of prime ministers or state capitals when literally the moment you ask the question you can have the answer?

In the 1980s, I was captain of a team in a pub trivia league. It was fun to be able to quickly dredge up facts from one's own memory. But that is so last millennium. Lawyers have long known this: they happily bill you for researching the law; their expertise is not in what they know, but in what they know how to find.

Albert Einstein famously didn't know his own phone number. Sherlock Holmes didn't know that Earth revolved around the sun. Both of them considered it ridiculous to carry irrelevant facts around in their heads. We would do well to emulate their genius. We shouldn't pack our brain full of facts and figures; instead, we should train ourselves to be able to quickly absorb and synthesize all the myriad sources of information that are available to us.

For a long time, the attractive and the glib have succeeded in business and life — they might not be the brightest, or the nicest, or the most creative, or the best educated, or the most cooperative. But they were the ones who got ahead — and they're the ones threatened most by computing.

I mentioned that we devised our tests for attention during an aberrant period of history — the era of television. But this, too, is an aberrant period: this is the low-bandwidth era. Most of our online communication is in the form of text. And when you're presenting text — be at in email or blog posts or Twitter tweets — all that matters is how clever and witty and profound you are.

It doesn't matter online if you're good looking, how you dress, how old you are, whether you're in shape, or what your ethnicity is. All that comes through the text, as Martin Luther King so famously said, is the content of your character.

Of course, as a science-fiction writer, I well know that we'll have fully immersive virtual reality soon: it won't be long before your online avatar will be as intricately detailed as the real you. Will that bring back the era in which the handsome rule, and superficiality is king?

Maybe not. I have an avatar in the online world of Second Life right now — a crude first-generation taste of the virtual reality that will soon be upon us. My avatar has lots of hair, something I haven't had for decades, and it's in better shape than I've ever been. In a virtual world in which everyone looks like Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston, mere appearances won't ever give one an edge again.

But multitasking will. We should embrace and encourage it in our young — because, just as it was in the ancient past, it will forevermore be a key survival skill.

[2009 bionote] Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer's 18th novel Wake comes out next month.

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