Invited experts for the community discussion on the effects of devices on thinking, learning and community that took place at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative include the following.

coanJames Coan is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia. His recent work examines the neural systems that support social forms of emotion regulation. In 2010, he received the inaugural Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association for Psychological Science and the Early Career Award from the Society for Psychophysiological Research. Current research focuses on the social regulation of emotion, facial movement and emotional experience, and frontal EEG asymmetry, affective style and psychopathology.

frenchAmanda French is currently the THATCamp Coordinator and Research Assistant Professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. She provides support for THATCamp organizers and participants, maintains the website, and directs large-scale projects such as the Proceedings of THATCamp. At the University of Virginia, while earning her doctorate in English, she encoded texts in first SGML and then XML for the Rossetti Archive and the Electronic Text Center. Her 2004 dissertation was a history of the villanelle, the poetic form of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” She held the Council on Library and Information Resources Postdoctoral Fellowship at NCSU Libraries from 2004 to 2006. Following this, she taught graduate and undergraduate courses at NCSU in Victorian literature and poetry as well as in the digital humanities and in advanced academic research methods. In 2009, she worked with the NYU Archives and Public History program on an NHPRC-funded project to create a model digital curriculum for historian-archivists.

lillardDr. Angeline Lillard is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. She has a BA in English Literature from Smith College and a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University. She is head of the Early Development Lab at the University of Virginia. Her work examines the way that children process information and learn about the world around them. Recent studies in the laboratory are concerned with the impact of Montessori education on cognitive achievement and social development, the effect of television viewing on children’s executive functions, and a variety of issues concerning pretend play, such as how and when young children discriminate pretend from real behaviors.

levensonMichael Levenson, Director of the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures served as moderator for the devices panel.  Levenson is the William B. Christian Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of A Genealogy of Modernism (Cambridge University Press), Modernism and the Fate of Individuality (Cambridge University Press), The Spectacle of Intimacy (Princeton University Press, co-author Karen Chase), and the forthcoming Modernism from Yale University Press (2011). He is also the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Modernism (2000, 2nd edition 2011). He has been awarded a series of grants and fellowships, including a Mellon Fellowship (2002-2005), a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1995), and Fulbright Senior Specialists Grant (2010 — ). He has lectured at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, York, Sussex, Warwick (among others) and has published essays in such journals as Modernism/ Modernity, ELH, The New Republic, Wilson Quarterly, and Raritan. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, Professor Levenson received his B.A. from Harvard College and Ph.D from Stanford University. His interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century transatlantic literatures, the Broadway Musical, the history of literary theory, and global comparative cultures.

Presentation

The devices session was held on Tuesday, April 8th at the Bridge. This session was organized by the Transduction class with the purpose of discussing the role of devices in our everyday lives. Amanda French, Angeline Lillard, and Jim Coan served as panelists and Michael Levenson acted as the moderator for our discussion. The audience was comprised of Transduction and other university students, as well as outside teachers and community members. Commentary and opinions on the vices and virtues of devices were quite diverse and covered a range of topics.

Professor Jim Coan began the discussion by describing his own view the self, which he sees as dynamic and fluid rather than fixed: “The self is not something that the brain has. It’s something that the brain does. And the self is very malleable.” Professor Coan also discussed the social processes involved in the perception of self: “We perceive familiarity by mapping others onto the self, so that boundaries between the self and others start to blur.” He then described the view held by social neuroscience that humans “outsource” autobiographical memories to their social networks. Distributing memory in this manner has an evolutionary advantage to reducing the amount of real, metabolic work our brains must do. As such, the individuals close to us literally carry “the story of our life.” In Professor Coan’s view, it is exactly this type of adaptive social ecology that has allowed humans to survive anywhere on the planet: “We are not bound to a terrestrial environment. We are bound to each other.”

Professor Coan went on to discuss how this concept of the self and others relates to the use of technology in our modern world. He spoke to the fact that devices allow us to allocate our cognitive resources to things other than data memorization, thereby conserving energy. For example, there is no longer a need to remember directions or phone numbers, as this information can be easily stored and accessed on devices. In terms of the social network, technology also allows us to outsource cognitive work to other individuals in a more efficient and wide-scale manner than does face-to-face interaction alone.

Professor Coan discussed the advantages and disadvantages of this process. On the one hand, gadgets allow us to construct complex and expansive social systems and to do so more quickly and efficiently than ever before. On the other hand, however, outsourcing cognitive “work” to these systems and to our devices may not be a natural process for us, evolutionarily. Humans are “wired” to exert a certain amount of effort in order to think, to retain knowledge, and to perform cognitive tasks. Technology does allow us conserve cognitive resources by outsourcing much of this work. However, the question remains whether it is truly in our best interest to rely too heavily on artificial devices to perform the tasks our brains were designed for.

Our next speaker, Professor Amanda French, took the session in a different direction. She focused her discussion on one very important aspect of technology use: the book. She opened with a provocative question, asking us all to cast a vote: “Will the book exist in fifty years?” She discussed the fact that while the e-book reader has become a mainstream adaptive device in modern society, its popularity is in fact very recent. We all agreed that the answer to her original prompt was, yes, books will continue to exist. However, it remains to be seen how e-books will affect the social capital of the book in the foreseeable future.

Amanda French also discussed the history and the survival of the public library. The public library system is only about 100 years old, but is something that we take for granted and view to be important to the democratization of knowledge. What will happen to libraries as the “book” evolves to become not only physical but also electronic? Currently, e-books cannot be publically borrowed and lent by libraries in the way that physical books are. Should this policy be changed? French says yes. She believes that the integration of e-books into libraries can improve our access to knowledge and our ability to catalogue information. E-books are part of a larger picture for the future, in which technology has an increasingly larger impact on information accessibility and sharing.

French also had some more general insights to share about technology-use. She mentioned the “hilarious futurology” of devices, a phenomenon can only be appreciated in hindsight. Imagine, for example, the way that a high-tech future is imagined and depicted in a 70’s sci-fi movie, and how that depiction seems outdated and even comical to us now. French also gave a brief history of the e-book reader and emphasized the importance of understanding the history of devices in order to appreciate their current and future development. Furthermore, French posited that it is not the development of devices itself that is a “problem,” but rather the rules about how these devices are used. According to French, if there is a problem, it is “humanly created, historically contingent, and still changeable.”

Our third and final speaker, Professor Angel Lillard, approached the conversation from an educational perspective, with concerns about cognition and development. Her expertise in the devices realm is focused on the effect of media on child development. She was optimistic about devices’ capacity to connect people and inform them, but also expressed concern about technology use. It is her belief that technology use amplifies the social tendencies already inherent to us. As such, the use of devices can lead to varied outcomes–greater connection, for example, but also increased isolation. These outcomes should be conceptualized on a continuum, rather than seen as only two possible eventualities.

Dr. Lillard’s main concerns regarding new media use is that television leads to time displacement (less time spent interacting socially), may encourage social and physical aggression, stereotypes, and materialism, and has negative effects on cognitive abilities such as attention and executive function. For example, Dr. Lillard expressed concerns that “quick-moving” television programs could negatively affect the attention span of young children. High-speed programs, even those such as Little Einstein that are educational, may have the unintentional consequence of over-stimulating children and negatively affecting their attentional control.

Discussion

Following Dr. Lillard’s input, the panel took questions from the audience, with Professor Levenson moderating the discussion. Some themes that arose during this discussion included the following:

  • What is the value of personal (physical) presence, and is this important?
  • Are we overly reliant on or even addicted to our devices?
  • How do we moderate our use of technology? How do we judge? How do we self-regulate?
  • What is the effect of technology on the globalization of American culture?
  • How does technology affect cognitive ability and learning?

The community members who attended the session were the primary drivers of the discussion and brought up many questions concerning the dangers of devices. Many of these contributors were professional educators and parents, with concerns about how the reliance on devices may adversely affect child development. How is the brain affected by the use of technology from a young age in children who have learned to read, write, speak and think with devices in hand? Does this impair communication skills, critical thinking ability, creativity, or independent thinking? These are questions that will continue to be examined as the first generation of children who have been completely immersed in technology come of age.

The university students who attended the session approached the discussion with a different mindset, with an interest in social media and the virtual self. In a world of pervasive online social networking, what is the relationship of virtual interaction to real-life interaction, of our online identity to our real-world identity? Social networks not only affect our conception of self by outsourcing mental work, as Professor Coan discussed, but also through the immediate and extensive feedback we get about the content we share. How does our “culture of likes” affect our identity, our development of self, our sense of worth, our experiences of support or of isolation?

Transduction

Two days following the devices session the Transduction team held a class meeting. Several students expressed an opinion that a future session of this type could dedicate more focus to discussing how to navigate life with devices, rather than vilifying or glorifying the various ways that technology is used. We also discussed the plethora of subjects related to devices and self that we might have begun to explore had the theme of the session taken a different direction.

Nonetheless, the devices session was an informative and thought-provoking experience that brought a diverse set of perspectives to the metaphorical table and gave us all food for thought. Transduction processes were evident throughout our exploration of this topic: between technology and education, technology and cognition, technology and information access and sharing, technology and early development, technology and social networks, technology and the self. As society continues to advance, it is important to be cognizant of our technology use and to actively seek a place of synergy and balance. As we continue to mediate the relationship between humans and technology, we must continue to examine our devices, ourselves, and the virtues and vices of both.

Report by Laura Reynolds, Jessica Rojsuontikul, and Meaghan Taylor.

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