Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A World of Robotic Knowledge

I have a friend in Chicago who writes a blog on entertainment in Chicago.  His name is Seth Arkin, his blog is, and he recently posted a piece that was ostensibly about whether or not he should cancel his subscription to his hard copy daily newspaper.  I say ostensibly, because initially he explores his concerns about the effects of the digital media on young people today.  One of the effects he discusses is “the erosion of cursory or associative learning due to the simplified processes of finding the specific information one is seeking.”  He gives an example of how, in the old days, if he had had to do a school report, he would have had to ride his bike to the library.  On the way, he might have stopped at a record store or some other store.  When he had gotten to the library, he would have had to pass shelves where he might have seen a book or magazine in which he was interested.  Then when he had gotten to the reference section, he would have looked in the volume of the encyclopedia for the letter with which his subject began.  Seth gives the example of doing a paper on Bach.  So he would have gone through the B volume and perhaps he would have noticed “articles on baseball or ballet or The Beatles or beetles or Barcelona or backgammon or James Baldwin or birds or bees or blues or bebop or something else……”  He would have been distracted from his original subject, but he would have learned something else in the process.

Let us review all the layers of daily experience that Seth points out are lost with using the computer or smart phone for looking up information.  There is the layer of experience of the route to the library.  One loses all the phenomena that are juxtaposed next to the route.  Then there is the layer of experience in the library of all the book shelves passed going to the chosen book or books.  One loses all the books on the shelves that are juxtaposed next to the path to the chosen books.  Then, if the chosen book or books is a volume of an encyclopedia, there is the layer of experience of all the other pages that one can encounter in leafing through the volume to get to the chosen subject.  One loses all the subjects on the pages that are juxtaposed around the page with the chosen subject.

Seth actually left out two important layers of experience that one encounters when one uses books that aren’t volumes of encyclopedias.  First is the layer of experience of all the library cards that are juxtaposed around the card with the listing of a particular book in a card catalog.  In the old days, one used card catalogs for more advance school reports that required using books that weren’t encyclopedia volumes or textbooks.  Second, there is the layer of experience of all the books on related but different subjects that surround the chosen book on its particular shelf.  This is different from the books one randomly notices on other different shelves, as one walks to the shelf with the chosen book.  In the layer of experience of the books on related but different subjects near the chosen book or books, one is liable to find other books with material that can be used for one’s report or essay.  This gives a person a broader grounding in the subject being reported on, and it allows for the material to make a deeper imprint on his mind, one that is likely to be preserved.  One is also likely to receive imprints from the other random books that one passes or that one sees in the card catalog.

Finally, there are the imprints from the layer of experience one passes through in going to and from the library.  Seth stopped at a record store, but it could be a corner drug store or a clothing store or a book store or an art gallery or a park where one stops.  The whole journey to and from the library and to and from the chosen book or books becomes a grounding of continual stimuli that acts as a base for the discrete stimuli of the information of the chosen subject.  By enriching the knowledge experience with primary experience from being in the external world, the information from the chosen book or books is able to leave a more lasting imprint.  And this imprint is surrounded by the information from all the other books, and the information blurs together into continual stimuli that blur together into a base of knowledge that give a person a breadth and depth of learning that he is not going to get using a computer or smart phone to do research.

And this is because a computer makes the journey too easy and too direct to the desired information. By putting in the appropriate key words, one gets directly on Google to the information desired in a matter of seconds.  One gets directly to the discrete stimuli of the desired information without having to pass through any of the layers of continual stimuli through which Seth had to pass in his journey too and from the library.  Rather than getting a broad flow of knowledge to give oneself real learning, on a computer one gets lots of little pin points of information that do not cohere together enough to make a meaningful enduring imprint on the mind.

So students today get little pin points of information to write their reports, but without the grounding, without the context, the information is not as easily retained.  One needs a flow of experience, a flow of continual blending stimuli to hold the discrete stimuli together to make a meaningful enduring imprint.  Without much continual blending stimulation, the pin points of information end up creating a highly attenuated ephemeral mark on the mind.

In general, configurations of stimuli that are preponderately or, at least, dominated by continual stimuli are experiences, while configurations of stimuli that are preponderately or, at least, dominated by discrete stimuli are events.  I am going to start talking about this distinction more in my column, because I think it is an important distinction for understanding human life situations.  In both cases, there is usually a mixture of discrete and continual stimuli.  The difference between experiences and events comes from the difference in the mixture of these two types of stimuli.

When considering the whole process of information retrieval on a computer, the presence of continual stimuli is very minimal.  As a result, we experience the pin points of information as a series of mini-events, much purer in discrete stimuli than what we normally think of as an event.  What we normally think of as an event - a wedding or a presidential inauguration or an act of war - has enough coninual stimuli to make a meaningful imprint.  But the mini-events of computer information retrieval really don’t have enough continual stimuli to make a meaningful imprint.  I am using the word imprint to mean an impression from stimuli that is somehow absorbable by the mind.  This means that the mind can make sense of it and potentially integrate it.  To be capable of being integrated, the stimulus configuration must contain some element of continual stimuli.  A meaningful imprint has a mixture of both discrete and continual stimuli.  However, most people who do informal retrieval from surfing the web are bombarded with many little isolated bits of information, discrete stimuli that leave marks on our mind and that aren’t properly absorbed and that tend not to endure for long.  It is more like information static.  The computer with its vacuumized screen comprises a small vacuum and static world that mimics the vacuum and static situation in our modern technological living environment.

As I pointed out in a previous column, robots are stimulated by the signals of pure discrete stimuli.  No matter how complicated the algorithmic system is that is used to activate the robot, the system still relies on discrete integers and discrete stimuli.  This is the kind of stimulation we are now giving to our students and office workers through computers.  And this is why the experience that my friend Seth had in his journeys to the library seems so very precious now.  Precious because it is vibrant experiences like this one that define and validate our humanity.  But more than that, it is experiences like this that used to form the foundation of people with a good general education and a broad base of knowledge.  Today, students and other people get a lot of their knowledge as computer or smart phone pin points that, without a meaningful grounded context, just don’t stay a part of their life experience for very long.  But why should the pin points be retained, when, if a person forgets something, he can look it up again so easily on his smart phone or computer.  In the old days, if a person forgot a piece of information, he would frequently have to make a time-consuming journey to a library or a book store to look it up again.  It paid to remember more of what one read.  Of course, in truth, a time consuming knowledge journey to a library or a book store wasn’t such an awful thing anyway.  It was one of the vibrant experiences out of which life used to be made.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow

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