Cyborgs and Zombies in the Classroom

There’s a discussion going on in the Wired Campus blog on the question of how, to what extent, and with what effects students’ cognitive abilities are being altered by new technologies.  The discussion was triggered by an article in The Sunday Times of London, “Report: The Next Step in Brain Evolution” by Richard Woods.

The basic argument is familiar.  Given the pervasive use of mobile phones, instant text messaging, email, and blogs for communication, young people today are encountering so much information so rapidly that multi-tasking and on-the-fly assessment has become the norm accompanied by reduced attention spans and diminished ability to concentrate and reflect on ideas, engage in an extended conversation or discussion, analyze and critically interpret an argument or text, etc., etc. 

When this phenomenon is present in the classroom, the instructor is faced with a dilemma:  Do I do what I’ve always done and try to discipline them to listen to a lecture, take notes, and follow-up with questions and critical comments?  Or do I completely rethink my approach by incorporating more discussion, multimedia presentations, online resources, and group collaborations?

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether this so-called dilemma accurately represents the situation, it’s worth noting the most provocative aspect of Woods’ article — the claim by cognitive scientist Andy Clark that today’s students (and everyone else immersed in digital technology) should be considered “cyborgs” given their radically altered cognitive behavior and emerging skills.  Due to the interfaces and tools we use today, thinking is being increasingly externalized — taking place “outside the head” — to such an extent that “[i]t will soon be harder than ever to tell where the human user stops and the rest of the world begins”. (Edge’s Third Culture profile and article by Clark are here, and interview from 2004 at the Institute for the Future here, and the Wikipedia entry here.)

The notion that thoughts and mental content are not entirely “in the head” is not new to contemporary philosophers of mind (e.g. Fred Dretske, to take just one recent example).  Debates between internalists and externalists have given rise to a vast literature on the topic.  To what extent this is relevant to how students acquire and make use of information is not obvious to me.  But surely we’ve reached the point where our reflections on the matter and our pedagogical responses can and should go beyond the anecdotal by taking advantage of current empirical evidence.

Actually, I’m probably less concerned about cyborgs than I am about zombies in the classroom.

Disambiguate Before September Ends

It’s certainly gratifying to see an article in the New York Times by Sarah Boxer reviewing an appropriation and political intervention by independent vlogger Zadi at Karmagrrrl. Zadi’s Quicktime video reframes Green Day’s tune (Wake Me Up When September Ends) as a comment on the devastation resulting from hurricane Katrina and the inability of the U.S. government to protect and care for its own citizens.

While Green Day may have intended their song as a comment on the war in Iraq, the inherent ambiguity of the lyrics leaves it open to a wide range of interpretations. The Katrina disaster, as Boxer points out, seems a more comfortable and compelling fit than Sam Bayer’s emotionally predictable video [or here] showing two young lovers separated by the war.  The subtle editing of video and audio footage gathered by Zadi is both moving and suggestive. It sends a clear message without being in any way heavy-handed or preachy. The final (unattributed line) from the President’s mother, Barbara Bush, is chilling.

Kuspit on the Emergence of Computer-Mediated Art

Donald Kuspit’s recent essay at artnet, “The Matrix of Sensations”, argues for an historical development from mimesis (analog representation grounded in the object) to sensation (art grounded in digital codes). The progression begins with Manet and the impressionists, goes through post-impressionism, early and high modern abstraction, and culminates in postmodern computer-mediated art.

The status and significance of the image changes in postmodern digital art: the image becomes a secondary manifestation — a material epiphenomen, as it were — of the abstract code, which becomes the primary vehicle of creativity. Before, the creation of material images was the primary goal of visual art, and the immaterial code that guided the process was regarded as secondary. Now, the creation of the code — more broadly, the concept — becomes the primary creative act. The image no longer exists in its own right, but now exists only to make the invisible code visible, whatever the material medium.

The transformation from objective representation to code, Kuspit notes, is neither complete nor widely accepted.  But it marks a clear and logical path shaped, in part, by scientific theories and technology in the 20th century.

The response to Kuspit’s article has been swift and, in some cases, passionate.  Lou Gagnon dismisses Kuspit’s claims for the artistic value of “digital art” and the “creativity of code” due to their lacking an essential haptic dimension.  While his concerns are important, he overlooks crucial nuances in Kuspit’s approach when he claims that

We can relate to haptic records because we share a tactile world, because we make mistakes and we incorporate or work around them. We need that tactile feedback. I can take all the digital images that I can store of my children and all of them combined will pale in comparison to the fleeting power of holding their hand, smelling their hair and thumbing through their drawings.

Kuspit’s argument turns not simply on the distinction between our objective and tactile world of experience, on the one hand, and images, on the other. Rather, Kuspit is more concerned about our naively assuming the veridicality of perception and representation and having these assumptions called into question by the compelling, coherent, and often contradictory proliferation of digital forms arising out of this “matrix of sensations” — a questioning that leads to “a new experience of the real”. Gagnon’s point, that an artist’s creative response is shaped by their embodied experience, is true but trivial.  The more interesting questions have to do with the unexplored, or poorly understood, possibilities of experience and, to what extent, if any, computer-mediated art opens up those possibilities.

Tom Moody also points to an apparent disparity between Kuspit’s arguments (most of which he agrees with) and the examples (which fall short of Moody’s expectations.)

I think more is needed by way of both argument and example.  It’s not clear to me, on first reading and to cite just one example, how the link between the electronic pixelated image and sensation give rise to a radically new kind of experience.  Having just seen Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 (incorporating both analog and digital), I’m wondering how the use of digital processes in recording and editing the cinematic image “makes the invisible code visible”, what that could possibly mean, or why it matters.

It’s also curious that there’s no mention of Lev Manovich, noted for arguing (some years ago) that code and software form the basis for avant-garde art, and how Kuspit’s views coincide with, or depart from, Manovich’s.  (The only “new media” reference is Christiane Paul’s recent book, Digital Art.)