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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Norms and Limits” of Technology

Does it make sense to close education’s screen door to keep the bugs out?

Every generation produces new epidemics. Technology and the rise of social media have proved to be factors of acceleration in the spreading of what can now be justifiably called “social diseases,” if only the brand name hadn’t already been taken by syphilis and gonorrhea.

As reported by the journal eSchool News, the latest pandemic affecting youth is screen addiction. It may possibly eclipse the fashion that has emerged in recent decades of diagnosing ADHD — a wonderful made in USA cultural invention — that came to the rescue of traditional boredom-inducing educational practices. Education has, after all, always preferred hypoactivity to hyperactivity, since society sees an implicit equivalence between learning and submission.

Screen addiction might appear to be an answer to ADHD because it actually gets youngsters quiet and focused on a screen. But it poses a knottier challenge than ADHD to orderly life in society. Unfortunately for exasperated teachers, annoyed administrators and worried parents — but especially for Big Pharma — no one has found a simple and profitable medical prescription that will restore order.

Michael Mercier, the author of the article, struggles with this problem and appears desperately to be seeking a solution. He asks, “How do we set norms and limits that achieve a healthy, manageable balance between the benefits [screens] provide, and the harm they cause?”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Norms and limits:

The rules one hopes will be honored when no rules actually exist

It could be added that people tend to invoke the notion of norms and limits when the prevailing rule — in this case, capturing consumers’ attention — establishes a new norm that specifically abolishes all limits.

Contextual note

The article poses some interesting questions but, as often in the educational sector, reveals its admirable but ultimately futile tendency toward idealistic naivety. This is especially true with this question concerning the idea of creating minimally addictive apps: “If this would diminish profits, can they apply their creative minds to developing a solution that limits addictiveness while simultaneously growing profits?”

For anyone who knows how venture capitalists think and work, this question is a non-starter. Only a dreamer would imagine Silicon Valley investors accepting the idea of calling into question a formula that has proved its ability to make a profit. Despite their reputation of taking risks, they see voluntarily diminishing the ability to make a profit as a folly rather than a risk.

Then the author asks this question: “What role can the advertising, marketing, film, and television sectors play? Could they define a new social zeitgeist — a new lifestyle model — that makes it cool, hip and desirable for kids to reduce screen time?”

The obvious answer should be, “Yes, they have the power to do so. But, of course, no they won’t.” The corporate media dedicate themselves to producing and managing a social zeitgeist, but certainly not one that draws attention away from their products or their channels of communication.

Whatever educators may think, we are now living in what is called the “attention economy.” It has its rules and norms and one of them is not to pay attention to what good-hearted educators think would be beneficial to society. As Andrew Keen reports: “According to [Tristan] Harris, an ex-design ethicist at Google who The Atlantic described as ‘the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,’ we all ‘live in a city called the attention economy.’ That’s what is shaping everything about contemporary life, Harris says, particularly our increasingly surreal politics.”

All media companies are focused on “eyeballs.” As Patricia McDonald points out in The Guardian, “with the advent of social media and online news, eyeballs are everything” leading to what she refers to as the “race for clicks.” And it’s not just eyeballs, it’s the time spent by each eyeball. A deeper analysis would tell us that the point of any modern business is not just to attract eyeballs, but to capture them. Some of them, in their advertisements, express their intentions with admirable frankness: “Play this for 1 minute and see why everyone is addicted.”

Historical note

Education is in a deep crisis, with few guidelines and fewer recipes to solve the crisis. Many observers have remarked that while technology has radically changed our business and home environments and while cellphones have even changed people’s behavior in the street, a typical schoolroom today resembles both in its layout and behavioral principles the schoolroom as it emerged in the 19th century.

Despite the introduction of all kinds of technology in the classroom — including video, games and, to a lesser extent, social media — the fundamental culture of education remains what it was two centuries ago, under the influence of the economic needs of the Industrial Revolution. The economic needs of the 21st century, as we have seen, have followed the orientation of the emerging attention economy. This means that the problem of “attention deficit” has simply become more complex.

Technology for education — hardware and software — a sector of the economy now referred to as EdTech, is a booming industry but it can’t compete with video games and media, including social media. When a guru lists the impressive ways in which technology can have an impact on educational practices, it sounds enticing. But it rarely correlates with actual educational practices.

For example, when Keith Krach in the article linked to above tells us, “Many kids appreciate the challenge-reward concept of video games, and these digital platforms can incorporate a wealth of problem-solving and social skills,” it becomes clear that “can incorporate” means it hasn’t yet been done and especially hasn’t been put into practice on any significant scale. And while emphasizing what “kids appreciate,” it begs the question of what teachers appreciate. It also assumes that the “challenge-reward concept of video games” may be an appropriate and effective model for education.

Pavlovian theorists may agree, but whether that can be the basis of a new model of educational theory leaves not a few people in the field skeptical.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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