Friday, September 2, 2011

Internet & Books Share Same Critics 3

The pencil was attacked as a device that would ruin the writing of students when it was first introduced.  Just how important is the "smell" of books?

Many of the same attacks that are now launched at computers, spell checks, easy deletion and modification of documents electronically were the same arguments used against older technology that we take for granted today.

Another Shunned Technology . . . The Pencil
1st brand name pencils Faber, 1761
The funniest thing about all of these arguments against the Internet that we have covered in this series is that the people who say them, truly believe they are original. The same arguments have been used every time a new piece of technology comes out. Five years ago, when a teacher friend began using technology to teach his middle school students he was constantly getting into arguments with his supervisor and administrators. He wanted the students to type everything and email it to him. The supervisor and administrators wanted students to begin with a paper draft and not type until the final draft. The justifications the administrators used were that:
  1. If students type everything and never write by hand, their penmanship will be horrible; and when they eventually take the state test (which must be done in pencil) they will not have the hand strength to write long enough.
  2. Because computers have spell check and grammar check. Why is this a problem? Because the students will not think about their grammar and spelling when writing their early drafts; causing the students to become worse in these areas.
Now let’s return back to the early days of the printing press when people refused to give up writing books by hand. Why did they refuse? "Indeed, pen marks are likely to be valued more highly than printed passages because they offer clues to a given reader's thought processes." (Eisenstein, 324)  

And "Among other arguments (the usefulness of keeping idle hands busy, encouraging diligence, devotion, knowledge of Scripture, and so on)." (Eisenstein, 11)

And then about 400 years later, we came across a very similar situation with the invention of the rubber-tipped pencil. Armstrong reminds us that:
pencil from 17th century Nuremberg
Though their large-scale manufacture began in the late 1860s, it wasn't until after 1900 that inexpensive pencils – and ones with an important refinement, a built-in eraser – became widely available. For the first time, these wonderful writing tools, now in 1900 available at a price of one cent each, came within the budgetary reach of many schools. Teachers were not thrilled (Coles, 1999). Many of them had taught for years under conditions in which students could not easily correct writing errors. In response to these conditions, they had taught their students to think very carefully about what they wished to say before committing pen to paper. Many teachers of this era feared the arrival of a writing tool that would allow errors to be quickly and easily erased. Such a device, they felt, would encourage bad writing habits. The pencil with an eraser made it possible for students to make corrections 'on the fly' instead of making them in their heads as they carefully preplanned what they intended to write. Despite these concerns, pencils with erasers soon became common in schools, and teachers came to appreciate that there were benefits as well as potential dangers of a device that allowed written mistakes to be corrected quickly. (26)

And now a hundred years after that we are going through it all again with computers and the Internet.

People fear these changes and try to hide from them without considering the damage that can be done. Many think that by keeping these new devices from the children and forcing them to do things the old fashioned way we are increasing their intelligence. But what if we are actually hindering them? When reading the book, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, we are reminded that
It is often said that 'everything begins with a pencil,' and indeed it is the preferred medium of designers. In one recent study of the nature of the design process, engineers balked when they were asked to record their thought process with a pen. While the directors of the study did not want the subjects to be able to erase their false starts or alter their records of creativity, the engineers did not feel comfortable or natural without a pencil in their hands." (Petroski, loc. 169)
Now let’s take this experiment and apply it to our students. They spend all their time writing on keyboards. They type all the time. In fact, we don’t remember the last time a student picked up a pen or pencil willingly, without being forced to do so, unless they were going to draw with it. The only time most kids write with a pen or pencil is when they are doing homework. But what if this is hindering them from reaching their full potential? After all, professional engineers were unable to perform because they were denied their medium of choice, the pencil; now we are doing the same thing to our children. We are denying them their medium of choice, the computer. And why? Because it is not our medium of choice. How selfish!

We include some videos abou the pencil for those who might be interested.  If you cannot see the embedded videos, here is the link:

Speed & Convenience or A Familiar Smell?
It is not just in education that we see this trend happening. When showing the Amazon Kindle, we are constantly being mocked. They argue that they like the look, feel, and smell of an actual book; things an e-reader or tablet cannot mimic.  We were immediately reminded of a quote from Eisenstein:
Vespasiano's 'Lives of Illustrious Men" contains a reference to the beautifully bound manuscript books in the Duke of Urbino's library and snobbishly implies that a printed book would have been "ashamed" in such elegant company." (21)

Printed books could not compare in elegance and beauty to hand written manuscripts in the 1500s and now electronic books aren’t good enough when compared to paper books. Why? Because of aesthetics. They don’t look right. They don’t feel right. Let’s forget about increased portability. Let’s forget about the convenience of being able to access your library from almost anywhere. Let’s forget about never having to worry about losing or ruining your library. And let’s forget about being able to find any quote or annotation with a click of a button. We’re willing to give this all up for a familiar smell.

The Power of Hindsight
It only took a few hundred years; but now we finally see all the advantages the printing press has and had to offer us. For one,
Heightened awareness of distant regional boundaries was also encouraged by the output of more uniform maps containing more uniform boundaries and place names. Similar developments affected local customs, laws, languages, and customs." (Eisenstein, 59)

There is simply no equivalent in scribal culture for the "avalanche" of "how-to" books which poured off the new presses, explaining by "easy steps" just how to master diverse skills, ranging from playing a musical instrument to keeping accounts." (Eisenstein, 66) 
Well, it shouldn’t take another few hundred years to see how Google Maps and YouTube do this better than printed books ever could.

Another huge advantage of the printing press would have to contemporaries of the day was  that it,
…will so spread knowledge, that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties will not be governed by way of oppression and so, little by little, all kingdoms will be like to Macaria. . . .Printing . . . Ended forever a priestly monopoly of learning, overcame ignorance and superstition, pushed back the evil forces commanded by Italian popes, and, in general, brought Western Europe out of the Dark Ages.' (Eisenstein, 167)
Mubarak cartoon
And once again we now see the Internet doing the same exact thing for all countries around the world. Just look at Egypt and Tunisia. Within the last year or so, people who live in countries like these have been getting increasingly unhappy with their situation and fighting for their rights and freedom. Most of this seems to be due to the fact that they see all that other countries have through the Internet.

Thus we see all the arguments against technology repeated over and over and over again. It is all so repetitive that when Eisenstein said of the printing press,
Even the 'decay of nature' theme, once intimately associated with the erosion and corruption of scribal writings, would be reworked and reoriented by gloomy modern prophets who envisaged a 'run-away technology' and felt regress, not progress, characterized their age," (99) 
click to enlarge

via: techliberation
she could very well have been talking about any number of new technologies. The important thing to remember, though, is that these arguments didn’t stop the printing press; they didn’t stop the rubber-tipped pencil; and they are not going to stop the Internet, e-readers, or any other new technology that comes out. In the end, the newer technology always wins out over the old one. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take people another few hundred years to realize how good they are for us.

Eisenstein, E. L. (2005). The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (p. 406). Cambridge University Press.
Petroski, H. (1992). The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (p. 448). Knopf.


NoName said...

I like the article, it is well written and interesting. I also have to say that I agree with most of what is said.
 Now for the criticism; This article has a major problem. Your citations include only 2 sources. Both sources are writings that present your views. When you are writing an article that presents and argues against a viewpoint you should cite the original source. That is the source that disagrees with you, so people can see the argument the other side is making and not how you perceive the argument to be. 
Presenting both points of an argument goes a long way to strengthening your opinion. By presenting the full position view point and maybe even showing examples where they have made a valid point is an important component of criticizing them. For example if I were to write an article countering your your view of "children should be exposed to the internet" I would cite a book written by a cop who sees children as prey on the internet, as supporting material that helped me build my opinion. But when I present your view, so I can counter it, I cite your article. This way the individual who is reading my article can refer to your argument after reading mine, and decide if I am correct with my criticism. When citing, if you are using a scholarly writing as supporting material for your view you should use scholarly writing when presenting the opposite view. You should use those with equal scholarly validity. Equal weight is important otherwise it diminishes your claim. Presenting the position as crazy makes you crazy for even responding to them. Giving them validity places your work above a well argues position. 

Here is an actual example of what I am talking about: 
Books were seen as methods to corrupt people's minds but the issue with the internet is that it is used as a tool to prey on children, and it is effective at doing that. The problem is not that it is used to corrupt their mind (we are use to that with TV) but is used to physically harm them. There is no argument you can make to defend something that would trump this fear, even if it is irrational. 
I agree with you that the best way to remedy this is to expose kids to more internet so they are well equipped to deal with this but you have to give more credence to the arguments that the natural inclination is to distance your-self (your kids) from what is harming you or your children. 

When discussing these fear and responses to them you should cite the plethora of cases and the opinions of the presiding judges. The judges opinions are open to the public and you can read them. You can also cite the opinions of many universities that began placing restriction on computer use by their students. Further, the many studies that have been done on the effects of the internet on children. All what I have told you are public information and you can access all of this. 

In short, I feel a full description and support of opposing views would be a good addition to the article. I can not argue against your opinion because I don't know who you are arguing against. Once I know the whole story I can judge if you are right.

For what I have said I would like to cite every scientific paper published in peer reviewed journal in the past 20 years. 
(read any at random, try the following journal: PLoS Genetics, Neuron, Science, Nature (series), Psychopharmacology, Neuroscience, Science, PNAS or any other one. )
All the papers present previous theories, supporting material, their results and then their interpretation of the results. In that order. And every statement attributed to someone else is cited to the original source. Very rarely do we cite reviews or opinion pieces).  

Laurence I Sanders said...

Let me begin by saying first thank you very much for your
comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I appreciate your criticism.
Second, I want to apologize for taking so long to write a response. Now allow
me to comment on your criticism.


While yes I only cite 2 sources I would like to point out a
few things to you. One, this article was never intended to be an academic
paper. If I decide somewhere down the road to publish it in a scholarly journal
or turn it into a full book, I would definitely do a lot more research. But
this is really supposed to be a perspective piece, almost like an editorial.


Two, there really isn’t any opposing view point to my
thesis. My main thesis is NOT, that “children should be exposed to the
Internet” as you state. My main objective was to show the similarities between
arguments that have been used both for and against the Internet as well as
other forms of technology (printed books, e-readers, & rubber-tipped
pencils). As far as I know there has never been any article that claims that
different arguments have been used for or against different technologies.

I do believe and state that children should be allowed to
use the Internet; but again this is NOT my main thesis. This is why you are
unable to decipher “who [I was] arguing against;” because I wasn’t arguing
“against” anyone in particular.


When you state as an example that the Internet is being used
to harm children, and not to corrupt their minds, you are partly mistaken. It
is actually being accused of both. I will give you that harming children is the
greater of the two concerns, but to say that the corruption of their minds is
NOT a concern would be a bit naïve. Also, your example that children are being
preyed upon through the Internet actually helps strengthen the argument that
kids need to be taught how to navigate it. You can try to keep kids off the
Internet as much as you want; but this is 100% impossible, short of locking
them in a room. Any kid who wants to go on line WILL! They have access in
school, libraries, and cafes, as well as through their phones. Or they can just
borrow a friend’s device. So do NOT fool yourself into thinking this is even a
possibility. Rather than keeping it from them, we need to teach them all about
it; especially its dangers.


When you state, “When discussing these fears and responses
to them you should cite the plethora of cases and the opinions of the presiding
judges,” that is EXACTLY why I did not. All of these cases and studies that
universities have done on the Internet have been written about to an exhaustive
level. Everyone is well aware of them. I wanted to share some knowledge that
most people would not have already known or heard. Plus my blog was already
lengthy consisting of 3 parts. If I included all of that, it would have been
well over 6 parts. I think most people would admit that they probably would
have lost interest before the end of it, especially if I spent a lot of time
citing cases, studies, and stories that are very similar to ones they have
already heard. I believe you even realize this yourself. After all, why else
would you state, ”For what I have said I would like to cite every scientific
paper published in peer reviewed journal in the past 20 years.” By you stating
this, you show exactly how overstated all these studies are. Otherwise, why not
choose some and list them.

Again, I would like to thank you for all of your feedback.