SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > All Screens Are Not Created Equal
All Screens Are Not Created Equal
by Robert J. Sawyer
as an op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation
newspaper in Canada's capital city, Friday, March 20, 2009; this is
the definitive version of the text.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
We have an epidemic of attention deficit disorder or, at
least, we have an epidemic of diagnoses of that condition.
And the culprit most often named: the use of computers.
But is there really something wrong with huge numbers of young
people today? Has computer use rotted their brains? Or is it
perhaps that there's something wrong with how we're
Our psychological tests for measuring attention were developed
between the 1950s and the 1990s. But that was an aberrant period
in human history. It was the era of the boob tube and couch
potatoes, of people sitting passively in front of television sets
for hours on end. Now, in a world in which young people
constantly shift their attention from one thing to another, we
brand them as ill if they don't sit still in class.
But that's crazy. Prior to TV going right back to our
origins on the African savanna we were always
multitasking, simultaneously gathering, hunting, scanning the
skies for eagles, scanning the grass for snakes, watching the
horizon, and protecting our mates and children.
And now, thanks to the computer, we're back to multitasking
again, in spades.
Oh, at first blush, one might say nothing has changed. We've
just substituted one screen for another. But if we are to take
anything from Marshall McLuhan's pioneering work on media, it is
that screens are not created equal. The passivity of television
has nothing in common with the interactivity of the computer.
And yet in our schools and universities, we expect our kids to be
happy with passive consumption. Can we blame students for being
restless under such circumstances? In other realms, we don't
call being bored by the boring a disease; we call it taste.
But our teachers and professors drone on, essentially reading the
textbook out loud. The lecture is an outdated mode of pedagogy
that harks back to when schools were lucky to have a single copy
of a text. We live now in a world of information richness, not
scarcity. It's not our students who are failing us; it's our
Thankfully, at least at the best schools, that's starting to
change. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently
dispensed with its formerly giant introductory physics lecture
courses in favour of smaller, hands-on workshops an
appropriate shift from teacher-centred to student-centred
Like any brick-and-mortar enterprise, education has to revise its
approach to embrace, rather than ignore, the online world. But
instead we keep hearing that multitasking is bad for us; that
doing several things at once means we don't do anything well.
Tell that to the kids who are creating videos, building websites,
and publishing thousands of words of text each day: not only are
they doing high-quality work, they are doing things on their own
that it used to take large teams to accomplish. The complaints
about multitasking are the last gasps of the couch-potato
Just as pernicious as the canard about multitasking is the claim
that Google is making us stupid. Again, the old model of
learning rote memorization was a product of
information scarcity. Does it really make sense to spend days in
school memorizing the names of prime ministers or state capitals
when literally the moment you ask the question you can have the
In the 1980s, I was captain of a team in a pub trivia league. It
was fun to be able to quickly dredge up facts from one's own
memory. But that is so last millennium. Lawyers have
long known this: they happily bill you for researching the law;
their expertise is not in what they know, but in what they know
how to find.
Albert Einstein famously didn't know his own phone number.
Sherlock Holmes didn't know that Earth revolved around the sun.
Both of them considered it ridiculous to carry irrelevant facts
around in their heads. We would do well to emulate their genius.
We shouldn't pack our brain full of facts and figures; instead,
we should train ourselves to be able to quickly absorb and
synthesize all the myriad sources of information that are
available to us.
For a long time, the attractive and the glib have succeeded in
business and life they might not be the brightest, or the
nicest, or the most creative, or the best educated, or the most
cooperative. But they were the ones who got ahead and
they're the ones threatened most by computing.
I mentioned that we devised our tests for attention during an
aberrant period of history the era of television. But
this, too, is an aberrant period: this is the low-bandwidth era.
Most of our online communication is in the form of text. And
when you're presenting text be at in email or blog posts
or Twitter tweets all that matters is how clever and witty
and profound you are.
It doesn't matter online if you're good looking, how you dress,
how old you are, whether you're in shape, or what your ethnicity
is. All that comes through the text, as Martin Luther King so
famously said, is the content of your character.
Of course, as a science-fiction writer, I well know that we'll
have fully immersive virtual reality soon: it won't be long
before your online avatar will be as intricately detailed as the
real you. Will that bring back the era in which the handsome
rule, and superficiality is king?
Maybe not. I have an avatar in the online world of Second Life
right now a crude first-generation taste of the virtual
reality that will soon be upon us. My avatar has lots of hair,
something I haven't had for decades, and it's in better shape
than I've ever been. In a virtual world in which everyone looks
like Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston, mere appearances won't
ever give one an edge again.
But multitasking will. We should embrace and encourage it in our
young because, just as it was in the ancient past, it will
forevermore be a key survival skill.
Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer's 18th novel
Wake comes out next month.
More Good Reading
Rob's op-ed piece on The Canada Council and science fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on science: ten lost years
Rob's op-ed piece on a bright idea for atheists
Rob's op-ed piece on Stephen Hawking's call to colonize space
Rob's op-ed piece on Michael Crichton blending fact and fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on the private sector in space
Rob's op-ed piece on privacy who needs it?
Rob's op-ed piece on technology and the end of culture
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