The virtual and the real

September 14, 2006

An ambiguous posting from David Tebbutt a couple of days ago got me thinking. He talks about the way in which the current crop of children are so familiar with the web that they will have problems fitting into the constraints of a formal company culture. There were two nightmare statements there from my perspective. The first is the idea of a nine hour Skype conference call and the second the idea that you can have 800 friends in My Space. Now I have two children, one of who spends far too much time at home on the computer, and the other spends far too much time out of the home. I will not name names as they occasionally look at this blog. At least one will accuse me, with justice of rank hypocrisy given the time I spend on my Powerbook. I refuse to call it a computer as that would confuse it with nasty calculating machines running primitive operating systems.
Small Image It is probably the fact that I am now past fifty, but it got me thinking about the impact of technology on family and community life. It also connected with the latest book I am reading in my current deep immersion in the whole mind-brain identity issue, naturalising epistemology and the implications for human decision making and knowledge management. Those who do not want a wallow in nostalgia should not read on, or possibly skip the next few paragraphs to the sub-heading ENOUGH: you have been warned….

So, back in the 50’s and 60’s when I was growing up life was different. Having a bath once a week was considered middle class, breakfast was porridge covered in full fat milk and sugar plus bacon & eggs with toast and home made marmalade to follow. This was followed by a four two mile walks to and from school in shorts (at 16 you were allowed trousers and if you made prefect a red cap) regardless of the weather; four because we always came home for lunch. This was partly an issue of respectability as school dinners were linked with welfare, but it was also personal. The modern generation have no idea of what outside toilets were like in Welsh schools in those days, especially if you were bright and wanted to avoid the school bully. The winter of 1968 is a fond memory as the snow was six feet deep and finally after conditions of near frost bite we were once driven to school as a special concession; but we had to walk back and my sister fell into a snow hole but that is a story for another day. These days if the forecast says there will be snow all the local schools close down in anticipation. Then we were the first family in my class to get a Shower ….

We thought we were pretty savvy on the technology front. I grew up with the Radio and Childrens’ Hour on the Home Service. Voice only allows the development of an imagination. I first came across Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when it was serialised. His retelling of Celtic Legends as fantasy in the modern age have yet to be rivaled and were my introduction to Science Fantasy. David Davies read Kipling’s Just So Stories which are some of the best examples of teaching stories I know (and his voice was magical). We were finally allowed a television when I was 14. Justified as the RSC allowed their sequence of Shakespeare to be shown by the BBC. By the time I got the longed for long trousers we had a video machine that we as children could use but which confused our parents. Star Trek’s split infinative infurated by mother (especially as I did my maths homework while watching it), while Monty Python created a private language that our teachers could not understand. There was a near riot when our Physics teacher, in all innocence said … and now for something completely different. In imitation of Oz a few of us created an illegal school magazine using a cyclostyle machine and a primitive typewriter. We sold out the first edition in an hour before we were hunted down and briefly expelled (the second of my three expulsions from educational establishments at all levels: primary, secondary & University). The Headmaster refused to let us set up a Student’s Union so we elected the same officers to all the school societies and got one de-facto. They wouldn’t let us run social events in the school, so we created a commercial enterprise, using the Town Hall, that made a fortune, which we blew on the end of school party to beat all end of school parties before we went up to University. We had the first ever school computer, using a 300 baud acoustic coupler to the local technical college, and we used it to write a programme to fake our Physics Practical. It had a user input field for desired standard error. Best of all we were told that if we learnt to use a punch card machine we would have a job for life. Mind you the Headmaster showed forsight in getting his Academic Sixth Form to learn typing back in the early 70s.


Nostalgia wallow over, where I am I going with all this? Well, one take on the virtual life of many a child today is that is just a repeat of what happens with each generation. The young always pick up the latest technology which confuses their parents. Television & Video for me and my generation, the mobile phone and internet for my children. On reflection I think that is a mistake. We moved to a television, but we watched three and then four channels as a family. The programmes we watched were a part of conversation and social interaction. We played on the street, with whoever else was on the street at the time and we learnt to adapt to different people and different attitudes and backgrounds. Our interaction was not virtual, it was physical; it was not restricted to people we wanted to be with, it required us to play (and then work) with people we would not necessarily choose to be with.

Now that is what I am worried about. We know that the last few decades has resulting in an unhealthy focus on understanding through use of an interpretation of the symbolic nature of language, as written text not oral form. Something that was the subject of a previous posting. We are now getting an increasing understanding of human cognition. Its not just about symbol processing and its not just about the brain. As Rockwell’s book ably demonstrates it is about the nervous system, as well as chemical interactions within and without the body. In effect we can now start to argue that consciousness is a distributed in the body and its interactions with the environment. It is no longer a choice between saying that the mind is the brain, or taking up cartesian dualism; there is another alternative.

Now if this is the case, and the next generation are only used to operating in a symbolic virtual world, in which they limit their interactions to like minded social groups (and it is at least arguable that this is happening), what will happen when they enter the world of business? Especially those who are not knowledge workers, who may end up as a different generation of the disenfranchised and potentially the enraged. Worst still what about those who become social workers or doctors? What about those who enter Government without the human interaction with multiple cultures that is disabled by a virtual existence? Computers process symbols well, but if we limit it ourselves in that way then they may well exceed us in intelligence, not because they are, but because we choose to meet them half way.

So the dilemma and the question, to which I have not developed any answer. How do we take advantage of social computing and all it offers, while not degenerating the richness of human intelligence to the poverty of a machine?

2 responses to “The virtual and the real”

  1. […] However I then went to the main section of the paper any elation was suppressed by the depressing front page story from which I quote above. This seemed to come together with my thinking during the day relating to both attractors, but also the question of resilience which I will address first. There is a paradox around the issue of hygiene. On the one hand there is some evidence that we are more vulnerable (or at least our children are) to infection because we live in a too sterile environment. I read somewhere that increased asthma levels were in part due to lack of exposure to dust particles etc during key phases in childhood development. I know that my generation have a whole host of anti-bodies swirling around in our system as we went through mumps, both types of measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox, some exposure to TB and so on. I also think we are less secure against social issues but that has already had an airing. […]

  2. […] and progressive in attitude but they are worried. I had been feeling a bit isolated in my earlier nostalgia, however these items provide some serious support for that view […]

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