Peddling educational media and games is a lot like selling drugs to the parents of sick children: In both cases, the buyers are desperate. Those buying educational products often do so out of concern (or perhaps fear) for their child’s cognitive “health” and, thereby, their future as employable and successful adults. The hope is that some cognitive “treatment,” like a set of Baby Einstein DVDs or an iPad app, will ensure the “normal” mental development of their child, or perhaps provide them an advantage over other children. These practices are in some ways no different than anxiously shuttling infants and toddlers to pediatricians to see if they “are where they should be” or fretting over proper nutrition. However, the desperation and anxiety of parents serves as an incentive for those who develop and sell treatment options to overstate their benefits, if not outright deceive. Although regulations and institutions (i.e., the FDA) exist to help that ensure parents concerned about their son or daughter’s physiological development are not being swindled, those seeking to improve or ensure proper growth of their child’s cognitive abilities are on their own, and the market is replete with the educational equivalent of snake oil and laudanum.
Take the example of Baby Einstein. The developers of this DVD series promise that they are designed to “enrich your baby’s happiness” and “encourage [their] discovery of the world.” The implicit reference to Albert Einstein is meant to persuade parents that these DVDs provide a substantial educational benefit. Yet, there is good reason to be skeptical of Baby Einstein. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, recommends against exposing children under two to television and movies to children as a precaution against the potential development harms. A 2007 study broke headlines when researchers found evidence that the daily watching of educational DVDs like Baby Einstein may slow communicative development in infants but had no significant effects on toddlers. At the time, parents were already shelling out $200 million a year to Baby Einstein with the hope of stimulating their child’s brain. What they received, however, was likely no more than an overhyped electronic babysitter.
Today, the new hot market for education technology is not DVDs but iPad and smartphone apps. Unsurprisingly, the cognitive benefits provided by them are just as uncertain. As Celilia Kang notes, “despite advertising claims, there are no major studies that show whether the technology is helpful or harmful.” Given this state of uncertainty, firms can overstate the benefits provided by their products and consumers have little to guide them in navigating the market. Parents are particularly easy marks. Much like how an individual receiving a drug or some other form of medical treatment is often in a poor epistemological position to evaluate its efficacy (they have little way of knowing how they would have turned out without treatment or with an alternative), parents generally cannot effectively appraise the cognitive boost given to their child by letting them watch a Baby Einstein DVD or play an ostensibly literacy-enhancing game on their iPad. They have no way of knowing if little Suzy would have learned her letters faster or slower with or without the educational technology, or if it were substituted with more time for play or being read to. They simply have no point of comparison. Lacking a time machine, they cannot repeat the experiment.
Move over, some parents might be motivated to look for reasons to justify their spending on educational technologies or simply want to feel that they have agency in improving their child’s capacities. Therefore, they are likely to suffer from a confirmation bias. It is far too easy for parents to convince themselves that little David counted to ten because of their wise decision to purchase an app that bleats the numbers out of the tablet’s speakers when they jab their finger toward the correct box. Educational technologies have their own placebo effect. It just so happens to affect the minds of parents, not the child using the technology. Moreover, determining whether or not one’s child has been harmed is no easy matter. Changes in behavior could be either over or under estimated depending on to what extent parents suffers from an overly nostalgic memory of their own childhood or generational amnesia concerning real significant differences.
Yet, it is not only parents and their children who may be harmed by wasting time and money on learning technologies that are either not substantively more effective or even cognitively damaging. School districts spend billions of taxpayer money on new digital curricula and tools with unproven efficacy. There are numerous products, from Carengie’s “Cognitive Tutor” to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Destination Reading,” that make extravagant claims about their efficacy but have been found not to significantly improve learning outcomes over traditional textbooks when reviewed by the Department of Education. Nevertheless, both are still for sale. Websites for these software packages claim that they are “based on over 20 years of research into how students think and learn” and “empirical research and practice that helps identify, prevent, and remediate reading difficulties.” Nowhere is it stated on the companies’ websites that third party research suggests that these expensive pieces of software may not actually improve outcomes.
Even if some educational technologies prove to be somewhat more effective than a book or numbered blocks, they may still be undesirable for other reasons. Does an app cut into time that might otherwise be spent playing with parents or siblings? Children, on average, already spend seven hours each day in front of screens, which automatically translates into less time spent outdoors on non-electronic hobbies and interactions. The cultural presumption that improved educational outcomes always lie with the “latest and greatest” only exacerbates this situation. Do educational technologies in school districts come at the costs of jobs for teachers or cut into budgets for music and arts programs? The Los Angeles school district has cut thousands of teachers from their payroll in recent years but, as Carlo Rotella notes, is spending $500 million in bond money to purchase iPads. All the above concerns do not even broach the subject of how people raised on tablets might be changed in undesirable ways as a result. What sorts of expectations, beliefs and dispositions might their usage be more compatible? Given concerns about how technologies like the Internet influence how people think in general, concerned citizens should not let childhood be dominated by them without adequate debate and testing.
Because of the potential for harm, uncertainty of benefit and the difficulty for consumers to be adequately informed concerning either, the US should develop an equivalent to the FDA for educational technologies. Many Americans trust the FDA to prevent recurrences of pharmaceutical mistakes like thalidomide, the morning sickness drug that led to dead and deformed babies. Why not entrust a similar institution to help ensure that future children are not cognitively stunted, as may have happened with Baby Einstein DVDs, or simply that parents and school districts do not waste money on the educational equivalent of 19th century hair tonics and “water cures?”
The FDA, of course, is not perfect. Some aspects of human health are too complex to be parsed out through the kinds of experimental studies the FDA requires. Just think of the perpetual controversy over what percentage of people’s diet should come from fats, proteins and starches. Likewise, some promising treatments may never get pursued because the return on investment may not match the expenses incurred in getting FDA approval. The medicinal properties of some naturally occurring substances, for instance, have often not been substantively tested because, in that state, they cannot be patented. Finally, how to intervene in the development of children is ultimately a matter of values. Even pediatric science has been shaped by cultural assumptions about what an ideal adult looks like. For instance, mid-twentieth century pediatricians insisted, in contrast to thousands of years of human history, that sleeping alone promoted the healthiest outcomes for children. Today, it is easy to recognize that such science was shaped by Western myths of the self-reliant or rugged individual.
The above problems would likely also affect any proposed agency for assessing educational technologies. What makes for “good” education depends on one's opinion concerning what kind of person education ought to produce. Is it more important that children can repeat the alphabet or count to ten at earlier and earlier ages or that they can approach the world with not only curiosity and wonder but also as a critical inquirer? Is the extension of the logic and aims of the formal education system to earlier and earlier ages via apps and other digital devices even desirable? Why not redirect some of the money going to proliferating iPad apps and robotic learning systems to ensuring all children have the option to attend something more like the "forest kindergartens" that have existed in Germany for decades? No scientific study that can answer such questions. Nevertheless, something like an Educational Technology Association would, in any case, represent one step toward a more ethically responsible and accountable educational technology industry.
 Like any controversial study, its findings are a topic of contention. Other scholars have suggested that the data could be made to show a positive, negative or neutral result, depending on statistical treatment. The authors of the original study have countered, arguing that the critics have not undermined the original conclusion that the educational benefits of these DVDs are dubious at best and may crowd-out more effective practices like parents reading to their children.
In a dark room sits a man at his computer. Intensely gazing at the screen, he lets the images and videos wash over him. He is on the hunt for just the right content to satisfy him. Expressing a demeanor of ennui alternating with short-lived arousal, he hurriedly clicks through pages, links and tabs. He is tired. He knows he should just get it over with and go to bed. Yet, each new piece of information is attention-grabbing in a different way and evokes a sense of satisfaction – small pleasures, however, tinged with a yearning for still more. At last, he has had enough. Spent. Looking at the clock, he cannot help but feel a little disappointed. Three hours? Where did all the time go? Somewhat disgusted with himself, he lies in bed and eventually falls asleep.
This experience is likely familiar to many Internet users. The hypothetical subject that I described above could have been browsing for anything really: cat videos, pornography, odd news stories, Facebook updates or symptoms of a disorder he may or may not actually have. Through it, I meant to illustrate a common practice that one could call “novelty bingeing,” an activity that may not be completely new to the human condition but is definitely encouraged and facilitated by Internet technologies. I am interested in what such practices mean for the good life. However, there is likely no need for alarmism. The risks of chronic, technologically-supported pursuit of novelty and neophilia are perhaps more likely to manifest in a numbing sense of malaise than some dramatic crisis.
Nicholas Carr, of course, has already written a great deal about his worries that many of the informational practices enabled and encouraged in surfing the Internet may be making users shallower thinkers. Research at Stanford has confirmed that chronic media multitasking appears to have lasting, negative consequences on cognitive ability. Carr is concerned that Western humanity risks slowly and collectively forgetting how to do the kind of thinking seemingly better afforded by reading in one’s living room or walking in natural environments less shaped and infiltrated by industrial and digital technologies. To the extent that more linear and more meditative forms of mental activity are valuable for living well, typical Internet practices appear to stand in the way of the good life. One must, however, consider the trade-offs: Are the barriers to greater concentration and slower, meditative thinking worth the gains?
Curiosity and neophilia are part of and parcel, in some sense, to intellectual activity writ large. Humans’ brains are attuned to novelty in order to help them understand their environments. On occasion, my own browsing of blogs and random articles has spurred thoughts that I may not have otherwise had, or at least at that moment. So it is not novelty-seeking, neophilia, in general that may be problematic for the practice of deep, broad thinking but the pursuit of decontextualized novelty for novelty’s sake. If the design of various contemporary Internet technologies can be faulted, it is for failing to provide a supporting structure for contextualizing novelty so that it does not merely serve as a pleasant distraction but also aids in the understanding of one’s own environment; in a sense, that responsibility, perhaps even burden, is shifted evermore onto users.
Yet, to only consider the effects of Internet practices on cognitive capacities, I think, is to cast one’s net too narrowly. Where do affect and meaning fit into the picture? I think a comparison with practices of consumerism or materialistic culture is apt. As scholars such as Christopher Lasch have pointed out, consumerism is also driven by the endless pursuit of novelty. Yet, digital neophilia has some major differences; the object being consumed is an image, video or text that only exists for the consumer as long as it is visible on the screen or is stored on a hard-drive, and such non-material consumables seldom require a monetary transaction. It is a kind of consumerism without physical objects, a practice of consuming without purchasing. As a result, many of the more obvious “bads” of consumer behavior no longer applicable, such as credit card debt and the consumer’s feeling that their worth is dependent on their purchasing power.
Baudrillard described consumerist behavior as the building up of a selfhood via a “system of objects.” That is, objects are valued not so much for their functional utility but as a collection of symbols and signs representing the self. Consumerism is the understanding of “being” as tantamount to “having” rather than “relating.” Digital neophilia, on the other hand, appears to be the building up of the self around a system of observations. Many heavy Internet users spend hours each day flitting from page to page and video to video; one shares in the spreading and viewing of memes in a way that parallels the sharing and chasing of trends in fashion and consumer electronics. Of which kind of “being” might such an immense investment of time and energy into pursuing endlessly-novel digital observations be in service?
Unfortunately, I know of no one directly researching this question. I can only begin to surmise a partial answer from tangential pieces of evidence. The elephant of the room is whether such activity amounts to addiction and if calling it such aids or hinders our understanding of it. The case I mentioned in my last post, the fact that Evegny Morozov locks up his wi-fi card in order to help him resist the allure of endless novelty, suggests that at least some people display addictive behavior with respect to the Net. One of my colleagues, of course, would likely warn me of the risks in bandying about the word “addiction.” It has been often used merely to police certain forms of normality and pathologize difference. Yet, I am not convinced the word wholly without merit. Danah boyd, of all people, has worried that “we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity,” if we are not mindful concerning how we go about consuming digital content; too often we use digital technologies to pursue celebrity and gossip in ways that do not afford us “the benefits of social intimacy and bonding.”
Nevertheless, the only empirical research I could find concerning the possible effects of Internet neophilia was in online pornography studies; research suggests that the viewing of endlessly novel erotica leads some men to devalue their partners in a way akin to how advertising might encourage a person to no longer appreciate their trusty, but outmoded, wardrobe. This result is interesting and, if the study is genuinely reflective of reality for a large number of men in committed relationships, worrisome. At the same time, it may be too far a leap to extrapolate the results to non-erotic media forms. Does digital neophilia promote feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s proximate, everyday experiences because they fail to measure up with those viewed via online media?
Perhaps. I generally find that many of my conversations with people my own age involve more trading of stories about what one has recently seen on YouTube than stories about oneself. I hear fewer jokes and more recounting of funny Internet skits and pranks, which tend to involve people no one in the conversation actually knows. Although social media and user-generated content has allowed more people to be producers of media, it is seems to have simultaneously amplified the consumption behavior of those who continue to not produce content. To me, this suggests that, at some level, many people are increasingly encouraged to think their lives are less interesting then what they find online. If they did not view online spaces as the final arbiters of what information is interesting or worthy enough to tell others, why else would so many people feel driven to tweet or post a status update any time something the least bit interesting happens to them but feel disinclined to proffer much of themselves or their own experiences in face-to-face conversation?
I might be slightly overstating my case, but I believe the burden of evidence ought to fall on Internet-optimists. Novelty-bingeing may not be an inherent or essential characteristic of information technologies for all time, but, for the short-term, it is a dominant feature on the Net. The various harms may be subtle and difficult to measure, but it is evident in the obvious efforts of those seeking to avoid them – people who purchase anti-distraction software like “Freedom” or hide their wi-fi cards. The recognition of the consequences should not imply a wholesale abandonment of the Internet but merely to admit its current design failures. It should direct one’s attention to important and generally unexplored questions. What would an Internet designed around some conception of the good life not rooted in a narrow concern for the speed and efficiency of informational flows look like? What would it take to have one?
 There are, clearly, other issues with using erotic media as a comparison. Many more socially liberal or libertarian readers may be ideologically predisposed to discount such evidence as obviously motivated by antiquated or conservative forms of moralism, countering that how they explore their sexuality is their own personal choice. (The psychological sciences be damned!) In my mind, mid-twentieth century sexual “liberation” eliminated some damaging and arbitrary taboos but, to too much of an extent, mostly liberated Westerners to have their sexualities increasingly molded by advertisers and media conglomerates. It has not actually amounted to the freeing the internally-developed and independently-derived individual sexuality for the purpose of self-actualization, as various Panglossian historical accounts would have one believe. As long as people on the left retreat to the rhetoric of individual choice, they remain blind to many of the subtle social processes by which sexuality is actually shaped, which are, in many ways, just as coercive as earlier forms of taboo and prohibition.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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