E-learning & Digital Cultures: The man & the machine

This is the sixth in a series of posts reflecting on the E-learning and Digital Cultures massive open online course (MOOC). The course, offered through The University of Edinburgh and Coursera, explores “how digital cultures and learning cultures connect, and what this means for e-learning theory and practice.” To read more about the EDCMOOC experience, check out my posts tagged edcmooc or follow the #edcmooc hashtag on Twitter.

Each two-week block of EDCMOOC examines a key theme from popular and digital culture and how it relates to elearning. The theme for Weeks 3 and 4 is “Being Human”: what it means to be human in a digital culture and what this means for education. The resources in Week 4 take the perspective that “technology works to re-define what constitutes ‘the human’ – for better or worse” (EDMOOC Coursera space).

One of the readings for this week was Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains.” Carr asserts that internet use negatively affects cognition, and, “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” Carr’s focus is how technology shapes the brain, diminishing our ability to concentrate and contemplate. The net, Carr argues, is reprogramming us.

Contrast this with an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.  In “What Our Brains Can Teach Us,” David Eagleman responds to the Obama administration’s plans to invest $3 billion dollars in brain research over the next decade. The Brain Activity Map project will “examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics” (“Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain”). In response to the questions “Why brain science? Why now?” Eagleman outlines how brain research will benefit both physical and social health, improving our ability to detect and remedy problems from disease to drug crime.

I was most struck by Eagleman’s assertion that “a better understanding of the brain will steer the future of our technologies.” While Carr’s concern is how technology shapes the brain, Eagleman’s is how a better understanding of the brain will shape technology. He writes:

Smart people have been beating at the door of artificial intelligence for decades with only limited success. Google Translate can convert any language to any other, but understands nothing of the content. Watson still can’t answer simple questions like, “When President Obama walks into a room, does his nose come with him?” Our most promising hope for creating artificial intelligence is figuring out how natural intelligence works.

Carr describes the internet as a machine and humans as being under its sway; for Eagleman, the brain is the machine. Brain tissue takes over tasks from the lost hemisphere after a hemispherectomy and the animal brain adapts the animal’s gait when it breaks a leg, writes Eagleman; the brain is a “self-configuring machine.” Eagleman:

Imagine a future in which we capitalize on the principles of neural reconfiguration, producing devices — from smartphones to cars to space stations — that flexibly adapt rather than bust. For now, the brain is the only functioning example of such futuristic machinery on our planet.

Will technology steer the future of the brain, or will the brain steer the future of technology? I think the answer to both questions is yes. Fostering our students’ ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools, and media will prepare them for both eventualities without privileging one over the other.

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