EDUCATION: by Warren ReedNews Weekly
Seeking truth in the electronic age
, September 4, 2010
For Australians educated before the computer screen and mouse became prime tools for accessing knowledge, it is easy to identify with US commentator, Nicholas Carr, who has observed that, "the information-dense, hyperlink-rich, spastically churning internet is in effect rewiring our brains, making it harder for us to engage in deep, relaxed contemplation".
If only it were that simple. One minute it's our concentration that's challenged. Next, it's the morality of Wikileaks' handling of the 91,000 secret defence documents that fell into its hands. Well, here's another dimension to worry about.
The New York Times
, on August 2, ran a thought-provoking article by Trip Gabriel, entitled, "Plagiarism lines blur for students in digital age". It looked at the phenomenon of students believing that information freely available on the net is common knowledge that can simply be incorporated into one's own general knowledge. It is there for the taking, to be cut and pasted, mixed and matched, all without attribution.
The article provides the apocryphal example of Helene Hegemann, a German teenager whose best-selling novel about Berlin club life turned out to include passages lifted from others. Instead of offering an abject apology, Hegemann insisted, "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity."
Presumably, that means how genuine your intent is in purloining the creative thoughts of others to produce a mosaic from which you can project your own "distinctive" picture. But just because digital technology makes it easy to pluck what you want out of cyberspace, hardly makes it moral.
Indeed, it runs counter to the basic tenets of Western society consolidated two centuries ago through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, dynamic processes that gave rise to the concepts of intellectual property and copyright.
The New York Times
article quotes anthropologist, Susan Blum, from the University of Notre Dame in the United States, who set out to understand how students view authorship and the written word. She believes student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavours today - TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music sampling from earlier songs.
She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity - as their 1960s counterparts were - than in trying on many different personas, which the web enables with social networking. "If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique," she argues, "then it's OK if you say other people's words, it's OK if you say things you don't believe, it's OK if you write papers you couldn't care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade."
Another interesting view on what's going wrong comes from Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana University, who believes that plagiarism has to be tackled head on. Relaxing plagiarism standards, she told the New York Times
, does not foster creativity. It simply fosters laziness. "It may be increasingly accepted but there are still plenty of creative people - authors and artists and scholars - who are doing original work. It's kind of an insult that this ideal is gone, and now we're left only to make collages of the work of previous generations."
Wilensky believes the main reason plagiarism occurs is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigours of college writing. "If you're taught how to closely read sources and synthesise them into your own original argument in middle and high school, you're not going to be tempted to plagiarise in college, and you certainly won't do so unknowingly," she said.
Well said, as older Australians, educated with their feet on the ground rather than their hands reaching into cyberspace, would acknowledge. They tend to appreciate what's at stake here: not just our culture but the foundations of our civilisation, as grandiose as that may sound.
If truth is malleable, it can't be a building block. Writing is difficult - even excruciating for some - but for young people, learning to do it both creatively and honestly is a way of disciplining the mind and becoming aware of one's duty to contribute responsibly to society.
Underlying the problem of plagiarism is something more fundamental. The American cyber-theorist, Linda Stone, has described the modern phenomenon of "continuous partial attention", whereby multiple activities and connections are under way simultaneously. We're no longer disturbed by interruption or the trouble we have in focusing, and accept that we live in a new world of fluid intelligence.
Some thinkers in this field believe this is an induced form of attention deficit disorder (ADD). Like Nicholas Carr, Jamais Cascio, a senior fellow at the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies in Connecticut, points out how "we swim in an ocean of data, accessible from nearly anywhere, generated by billions of devices. We're only beginning to explore what we can do with this knowledge-at-a-touch."
But Cascio suggests that the technology-induced ADD that is associated with this new world may be a short-term problem.
"The trouble isn't that we have too much information at our fingertips," he says, "but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy."
He feels that many of the technologies that Carr and others worry about were developed precisely to help us get some control over a flood of data and ideas. "Google isn't the problem," he says. "It's the beginning of the solution."
Moreover, Cascio believes that any occupation requiring pattern-matching and the ability to find obscure connections will quickly morph from the domain of experts to that of ordinary people whose intelligence has been augmented by cheap digital tools.
Humans won't be taken out of the loop - in fact, many, many more humans will have the capacity to do something that was once limited to a hermetic priesthood. Intelligence augmentation decreases the need for specialisation and increases participatory complexity.
As the digital systems we rely upon become faster, more sophisticated and (with the usual hiccups) more capable, we're becoming more sophisticated and capable too. It's a form of co-evolution.
All of these thinkers help us understand the complexities of the electronic age. Cascio points to implications on the intellectual - if not neurological - front, and how we might move from a world of "continuous partial attention" to one we could perhaps call "continuous augmented awareness".Warren Reed spent 10 years as an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) in Asia and the Middle East, during which time he came to see not only why truth is central to our civilisation but also the myriad ways in which it is constantly distorted.
Trip Gabriel, "Plagiarism lines blur for students in digital age", The New York Times
, August 2, 2010.