Contributed by Barry Chudakov, founder and principal of Sertain Research
Today on ubiquitous screens, conversations, friends, images, stories and games magically appear to entice and intrigue them. Womb to app, kids navigate the world digitally — age 8 and under spend an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes a day with screen media.
The great puzzle: how to educate them to best adapt and thrive in this changed world where they all grow up to become screenagers.
Tech mavens hardly know. Melinda Gates: “I spent my career in technology. I wasn’t prepared for its effect on my kids.” Jaron Lanier: “You are not a gadget.” Steve Jobs: “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Sean Parker, a founder of Facebook: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
While there is a rising chorus of cautionary voices regarding collective exposure to technology, an opposite view sees our engagement with technology as mind expanding. Hence;
- We adjust our selves to (shrink-to-fit) our digital devices
- These devices effectively extend our minds
It is useful to hold both opposing viewpoints together without unduly weighting either. In so doing, these seemingly contradictory explanations provide a cooperative framework for how to build resilience into kids’ use of digital devices.
Sounding the Alarm
We shrink to the logic of our devices until we fit inside them. We fit our thoughts, our words, our responses — even our intentions — into the logic of the device. We adopt the logic of the technology (instantaneousness as highest good, speed as worth, constant interruption as necessary evil, multiple simultaneous messaging glorifying multitasking — to name a few). We think through these tools. We hardly notice this shrink-to-fit perception, and then proprioception — our awareness of the ends of our bodies — as we talk to no one present, ignore loved ones in our midst or pedestrians in our way — even oncoming traffic.
We contract to the logic of our devices because we incorporate them — make them part of our body. Italian researcher Lucilla Cardinali asserts, once a tool is in our hands it becomes part of us, part of the so-called ‘body schema.’ Anthony Chemero, a cognitive scientist adds: “The tool isn’t separate from you. It’s part of you….” In other words, we unwittingly entrain with our tools, just as our body clocks first entrained with the rising and setting of the sun.
But rather than being the end of the story, shrink-to-fit may be just the beginning.
Extending the Mind
Marshall McLuhan, writing Understanding Media in 1964 called media, “the extensions of man.” This extended mind is “regularly entangled with a whole range of devices.” These devices “are best understood as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world.”
W. Brian Arthur writing in The McKinsey Quarterly summed up the extended mind perspective: “The interesting thing here isn’t the form intelligence takes. It’s that intelligence is no longer housed internally in the brains of human workers but has moved … into the conversation among intelligent algorithms. It has become external.”
There are many nuances that fall on either side of these explications, but there is one segment of the user population that needs to understand and profit from these advancing perspectives on our use of digital devices: our kids.
Common Sense Media and others are developing programs to introduce practical steps to help kids navigate online identity and digital tool usage. While these are worthwhile, and some schools are taking steps to help kids who wander onto the Internet without guidance, I would like to step back and present a series of guidelines and considerations for kids and their exposure to digital devices.
Three Curriculum Imperatives
Here are three curriculum imperatives that constitute a baseline for further discussion:
- Digital literacy is now as important as alphabetic literacy, mathematics, science or STEM. We urgently need a curriculum that focuses on usage, best practices, security, identity, and other critical issues — including shrink-to-fit and the extended mind.
- This curriculum needs to start as early as kids have their hands on devices: i.e., first grade, and should continue all through secondary education.
- As power users, kids must be involved in the design and implementation of the curriculum. Schools should work with software and hardware developers with kids acting as board members and advisors.
The Shrink to Fit Story
- Body Inc.
We typically think we use a device. We don’t think that we are taking it into our body — incorporating the tool. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, exploited by Facebook, among others (“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”) gives our brain a reinforcing surge which enables social media companies to make their platforms “sticky” because we are rewarded by entering what New York Times columnist David Brooks called ‘compulsion loops.’
Acknowledging this we are in a position to discuss and establish agency, a critical issue for kids (and the rest of us): who is in charge of our perceptions and how much of ourselves do we hand over to our devices?
- Logic transfer
Each device that we use has its purpose — to be able to send a text message, share photographs, watch video — and also its own logic. Each person, in contrast, has what we might describe as his or her native logic. (Native logic/tool logic example: I should explain to Brian why I can’t see him tonight; but I’m busy so I’ll send a quick text instead: “Another time, Bri”). The value of understanding how we shrink-to-fit is the realization that it is all too easy to ignore our native logic.
- Stockholm Syndrome
If we don’t question — or challenge — the logic transfer of our devices we encounter the dark side of their usage. Our intention, and attention, can be taken hostage by the tool (i.e., sleep deprivation, ADHD, peer pressure, bullying, chronic fatigue, etc.). We develop a psychological alliance with devices that kidnap our attention and focus; our native logic entrains with the tool logic and typically we develop great sympathy for that logic rather than struggle against it.
- Attention trapping
We don’t pick up our devices and think, this device is designed to capture my attention and not let go; my attention is about to be trapped. The most valuable companies of our time have admitted having built attention-trapping engines: Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — to name a few. Tech executives, now concerned about their culpability in seducing consumers with tech gadgetry, confirm that attention-trapping business model.
“… has driven [companies] to create a product that is built to be addictive. Facebook is a fundamentally addictive product that is designed to capture as much of your attention as possible without any regard for the consequences. Tech addiction has a negative impact on your health and on your children’s health. It enables bad actors to do new bad things, from electoral meddling to sex trafficking. It increases narcissism and people’s desire to be famous on Instagram. And all of those consequences ladder up to the business model of getting people to use the product as much as possible through addictive, intentional-design tactics, and then monetizing their users’ attention through advertising.”
Except the advertising rationale has now morphed, as Jaron Lanier and others have noted, to a behavior modification model. In China — admittedly an extreme example at the moment — government security technology tracks ID numbers on social media platforms so “dangerous speech” can be traced and punished.
While it is imperative to educate kids about the addictive nature of social media platforms, “a new kind of responsibility” is now necessary. It is incumbent on these companies to be accountable for, and carefully regard the consequences of, building an addictive business model. Good intentions are no longer enough.
Hence, instead of handing over devices to our children as we might pass them a glass of water, we must first educate them, and diligently train them, to recognize and respond appropriately to the myriad engines of attention-trapping built into digital devices, including the social approval and reinforcement dimension that keeps our attention, and our self-esteem, hostage to successful platforms.
The Extended Mind Story
- Thinking Things
Things that think will soon surround us. Of course, by “think” we mean everyday objects in our lives are invested with designed-in intelligence. These objects are mind-extenders: we will think through them and they will think back. Soon every object we consider essential or useful, from refrigerators to phones and eyeglasses, will measure or ask for our response. From dings and whooshes that warn of an impending storm, to Alexa reminding us of a dental appointment, objects and devices will effectively extend our minds into the things we use.
- Embedded Intelligence
Objects and environments are about to come alive, exhibiting intelligent autonomy. The Internet of Things will embed capabilities and data mining into almost anything: vacuums and vehicles that self-navigate, prostheses that read social emotional cues, wearable health enhancing devices from heart monitors to Fitbits — the list may soon include all things we call things. This paves the way for superintelligence, which, as Nick Bostrom notes, “is able to improve its own intelligence.”
- Extended Agency
If we are presently finding it problematic to center our kids within their own natures and needs (because their cell phones are building new narratives of self-expression and self-presentation); how much more difficult will it be to maintain agency and enlightened response when kids live in a mind-extended Wonderland of interactive everythings? And what happens when tools become agents? Instead of looking like a phone, tools start to look and sound like us — humanoid genies, assistants, bots, and robots? As agents sense what we are feeling, converse with us, respond to mood, tone of voice, specific query or word — and use that data to extrapolate what we are thinking?
- Space Jammed
Our minds are already remarkably extended. Consider these emerging realities:
— New digital tools condense space and speed up response time: we think through them, which changes our thinking and ultimately our worldview (“Everything today is getting faster!”).
— Digital tools narrow the somatic distance between self and tool — soon our tools will embed in, or become an always-on appendage of, the body.
— We no longer control our tools’ response time: digital tools’ logic is instantaneousness — when we use these tools we mostly adhere to that logic.
— Tool logic speeds up human response time and denies space.
— Newer technology tools so contract reaction time — to news, events, messages — they often bypass reflection.
Five Starting Considerations to Build Intelligence into Kids’ Response to Smart Devices
Kids using digital devices generate large messy issues. Institutionalizing solutions will take time. But there are some simple, basic things we can do to start provocative discussions and begin to help children understand the Wonderland they inhabit.
Technology tools are rapidly iterating thinking and response devices. They are both shrink-to-fit tools and mind extenders.
So what does that mean for how to educate children to use them wisely?
I propose five criteria as a minimum level of engagement with digital devices. This is a way of evaluating presence and control; further, it enables us to become viscerally aware of both shrinking and extending.
We need a language to describe this endeavor and some reasonable starting points for discussion.
- Integrity — the ability to retain individual and identity wholeness, without a sense of your identity fracturing, being divided or diminished.
- Intention — the ability to retain your own unique intent, short or long term, as felt or understood before encountering a given tool.
- Attention — the ability to pay attention coherently to those things that matter without feeling that your attention is being fractured or divided (the brain cannot successfully multitask).
- Focus — the ability to keep your focus without being distracted by something which was not in focus before encountering a given tool.
- Flow — as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, “an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing.”
All five are in jeopardy, especially among young minds, as we engage with technology tools. These represent a minimum standard of engagement. They also serve to provide a framework for the mostly ignored dynamic of response. We heedlessly assume that we can use our tools without forethought; that is fine for a shovel, perhaps. But newer tools have crossed the line from passive object to things that think. We need to think back.
Coda: Recognizing Space
Between a tool-based action and our (largely unconscious) reaction, there is a space — if we claim it. An enlightened curriculum will cultivate expansion of that space.
— distance between you and the tool, i.e., awareness of how the tool affects
impulse, judgment, actions
— response time between using the tool and getting feedback or signals of affirmation or denial
— a place, a sense of distance, from which to view and evaluate who you are, what you do, when you use a technology tool
— distance between the thumb on the device and the message or tweet; between the click and selfies. Without this physical pause and psychological time out, the tool’s logic has outsmarted our consciousness.
Both shrink-to-fit and extended mind fit in this space; once acknowledged, tweens can navigate myriad routes to use digital tools consciously.
Barry Chudakov is the founder and principal of Sertain Research, a future-focused market research and information management consulting firm centered on the intersection of technology, brand, communication strategies, and tools. In 2007 Barry became a Visiting Research Fellow at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. Barry is regularly quoted by The Pew Research Center and is regarded by The Pew Research Internet Project as one of “the most prominent and respected technology experts and analysts.” He was included in the 2014 Net Threats report as one of the “gurus” in The Gurus Speak, as well as one of the Pew 2017 “Experts on the Pros and Cons of Algorithms,” and Pew 2018 “Key experts’ thinking about digital life and individuals’ well-being in the next decade.”
Barry is the author of The Tool That Tells the Story and the Metalifestream blog. In 2013, Barry’s “Hasan Elahi: Surveillance As Storytelling,” was included in (London, England) Whitechapel Gallery’s Documentary anthology (Documents of Contemporary Art series) edited by Julian Stallabrass. He has published a series of articles in Peachpit Press, “Making the Page Think Like a Network” and articles in Rewire Me, Florida Thinks, and Daily Good, including “9 Ways the Culture of Watching Is Changing Us.”