By Samuel Greengard
I'm sitting in front of my computer watching my high-school-age son do homework on his computer. Through the miracles of today's technology, I can peer over his shoulder--actually through the home network--while he researches a report on the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
No question, it's wonderful to see that he's reading a classic tale that's as relevant and accessible today as it was when it was published in 1960. It's difficult to find a story that offers more insight into the range of human thinking and emotions--and more moral direction.
At least that's the view from 30,000 feet. However, watching the way he's researching on the ground makes me wonder what exactly he's getting out of the task. I seem to be witnessing a full frontal assault on WikiAnswers and similar sites. He types in his questions and the site feeds him perfectly formed responses.
On one hand, it's a straightforward and efficient way to learn in the digital age. The goal, after all, is to learn and this is more efficient system than looking up articles in an encyclopedia. In the end, it really doesn't matter how you gain the knowledge as long as you somehow arrive there.
On the other hand, I'm concerned that the technology connects all the dots so efficiently that there's no need to think things through or ponder the invisible space between web pages and black and white words. You simply scoot from one question to the next and assemble your report. The computer does the analysis for you. It's the electronic version of color by numbers.
Reality probably lies somewhere in the murky middle. Even in a society that seems to be stuck in a permanent state of ADD and where things are dumbed down so often it's not even noticeable, there's plenty of evidence that sound thinking and analysis still take place. As I glance at my son's paper and read the final draft, I'm impressed that he's done more than cut and paste. He's actually provided some excellent analysis.
The human brain of 2012 certainly isn't the same as the human brain of 1936 or even 1990. I have to keep reminding myself that different isn't necessarily worse.