Summer 2013

Rewired and Second Self

Conor Hill Download Article

Larry D. Rosen, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 250 pages).

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (MIT Press, 2004, 372 pages).

The goal of Larry D. Rosen’s Rewired is to address the evident “educational delivery problem” (p. 3) which besets contemporary education. This problem, as he describes it, is that students of the iGeneration (those born in the 1990s and in the new millennium) “are simply not happy learning the way we are teaching them” (p. 4), or, simply put, “they hate school” (p. 3). The diagnosis which he offers is that “education has not caught up this new generation of tech-savvy [students]” (p. 3), insofar as educators do not know how to engage them in the process of learning. Therefore, Rosen suggests, “we need to find ways to match our teaching methods to [our students’] virtual lifestyles” (p. 5, emphasis added). Or again, we need “to adapt to their world” (p. 15).

Each chapter of the book address the different ways in which one could “rewire” education through the incorporation of current technologies (mobile phones, social networking, virtual worlds) and the harnessing of certain habits (multitasking, and “content creation” on social media websites). Rosen suggests that teachers adopt a method that enables students to multitask in the classroom (pp. 218-19); or, rather than having them write a traditional paper, one should give them the option of doing a “report” (p. 220) in which they can incorporate multiple forms of media (video, audio, art, etc.); or, again, using social media (i.e., MySpace, Facebook) as a context for “group projects that are done through online collaboration” (p. 221). (For those who might be interested in a brief exploration of Rosen’s proposal, see the final fifteen pages of the book where he gives clear summary of his “top eleven recommendations” for rewiring education.)

One of the most positive things that one can take from this book is Rosen’s adequate and realistic description of the iGeneration, their immersion in technology “24/7,” and how this informs the way they engage in the educational endeavor, with the world, and with one another. In this sense, his well-researched book provides a basis upon which we might understand the iGeneration and their habits of engagement with the world around them.

A deeper issue that arises, in this regard, is whether Rosen’s recommendations are based his perhaps overly narrow, functionalistic understanding the purpose of education. Education, as he understands it, is primarily the task of “passing on knowledge” (p. 107) and of “providing … critical thinking skills” (p. 5). This leads him to talk about learning as nearly synonymous with “engagement” with the material. So to address “the way the iGeneration learns” (from the subtitle of the book) is, for Rosen, to look at “the way they prefer to or habitually engage” in the world. Given these premises, and the current state of the iGeneration, the imperative of educators is that of finding and using “more engaging and more effective technological tools” (p. 184) to communicate that knowledge and to teach that critical thinking which are the end of education as such. However, if one had a broader understanding of education, which included in its scope, perhaps, education in “character” (i.e., the type of person that one becomes), or the creation of “life-long learners,” rather simply making students capable of doing a particular job, how would that affect the problem of engaging the iGeneration?

Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self offers just such a “broader scope.” It offers us a much needed breath of fresh air. The profound depth and scope of her examination, as well as its hopeful injunction that we ought not to see the “current direction [i.e., use of technology] as inevitable or determined” (p. 4), gave this reviewer a sense of relief. It was as though I were emerging from a windowless room, to see that the horizon was once again open and expansive. One does not have embrace tout court the technological revolution just yet, for Turkle’s account convincingly argues that there is more to the world, and to the human being’s relation to technology and to other human beings, than Rosen’s book suggests. Indeed, in her 2004 Epilogue, Turkle notes that the need for a “sustained scrutiny of our relationships with computation” has grown ever more urgent (p. 287).

The question which must remain in focus is not so much “what computers can do,” but “what we will be like,” what kind of “people we will become as we develop more and more intimate relationships with machines?” (p. 294). This is a philosophical question, which, she suggests, we often forget to ask because we are mesmerized by the computer (p. 294). When entranced, we become like those who “pronounce the words in a book but don’t understand what they mean” (p. 14). Turkle proposes a different imperative, that of understanding and deepening our conversations about “who we are becoming in our increasing intimacy with our machines” (p. 4).

Turkle’s book is the 20th anniversary edition of a work first published in 1984, updated only with an Introduction and an Epilogue. It comprises research undertaken between 1976 and 1983 in which she explored the early impact of computers on the human spirit. She notes that this was an age of “relative innocence” (p. 298) in which people were first confronted with machines whose behavior “incited them to think differently about human thought, memory, and understanding” (p. 1). By contrast, today’s “computer culture acts on the individual with breath-taking speed and ferocity” (p. 298). Despite the age of the book, her observations contain insights that are of contemporary relevance. Trained as a humanist (p. 1), she keeps the “human” at the center of her observations (p. 281-82), focusing her study on the impact of computers on the human person.

Like the inkblots in a “Rorschach test,” she believes computers can act as a mirror for our self-understanding. The computer is not “just a tool,” for its use does something “to us” (p. 3). In describing what this effect is, she also traces the link between technology and culture (p. 26), the manner in which technology shapes human culture. She wants to undermine two extreme ways of viewing or understanding technology: (a) the “naïve realist” and the “idealist” positions, in a sense affirming both of these perspectives together. She wants to see how computers evoke rather than determine thinking about the self. She notes that “the computer has become [simply] the new cultural symbol of the things that Rousseau feared from the pen: lost of direct contact with other people, the construction of a private world, a flight from real things to their representations” (p. 92).

The book is structured around the different stages of development: early childhood, school-aged children, adolescents. She shows how children use the computer in “world and identity construction. They use it for the development of fundamental conceptual categories, as a medium for the practice of mastery, and as a malleable material for helping them forge their sense of themselves” (p. 155). The second part of the book takes up university students and adults, for whom the computer becomes a “catalyst for cultural formation,” i.e., a way of seeing themselves, their jobs, their relationships with other people. Finally, in the third part, she expresses more general observations regarding the state of the human spirit in a computer culture, including our capacity for relationship to other people. “Terrified of being alone, yet afraid of intimacy, we experience widespread feelings of emptiness, of disconnection, of the unreality of the self. And here the computer, a companion without emotional demands, offers a compromise. You can be a loner, but never alone. You can interact, but never feel vulnerable to another person” (pp. 297–80). There is reason for pause before opening the doors of one’s home or classroom to every form of gadgetry.

Rosen’s study is mainly interested in “how we can use technology to get ‘results’ – to get the students engaged in their education.” But in an age where the lines between “real” and “virtual,” person and machine, are being blurred, Turkle suggests we pay more attention to our everyday experience of the world. She notes that, generally speaking, there is widespread resistance to treating human beings as programmed information systems. She asks us always to keep in mind this “philosophical” question about who we are. “If our encounters with computers don’t help us to deal more compassionately and carefully with one another, then what will our attitudes, formed through our relationship with them, contribute to our fragile and threatened world?” (p. 299).