Pattern Recognition: How Technology Might Make Us Smarter

There is a lot of talk about how technology might be making us stupid. The examples are legion, and possibilities endless: we can’t spell anymore; we can’t remember anything anymore because we have a big, giant, virtual brain called the internet; we have flea-like attention spans; etc, etc, etc,..

To over-generalize like this is certainly giving technology a bum rap. And of course, many argue the opposite – that using different technologies improves key abilities  like working memory and eye-hand coordination. I think that there is always the risk of losing skills (aka becoming more stupid) if use shortcuts all the time and look at things superficially rather than using our brains to understand something at a deeper level. But there are many opportunities to gain new abilities via technology.

One ability that I think might be enhanced by the use of internet-based platforms, like social media, web browsers, and online shopping, is pattern recognition. From the point of view of psychology, pattern recognition refers to perceiving that a set of separate items make up a greater whole – such as faces, objects, words, melodies, etc. This process often happens automatically and spontaneously, and seems to be an innate ability of most animals. Certainly, the tendency to see patterns is fundamentally human – even patterns that don’t exist, such as the Man in the Moon.

How would using the internet help strengthen our pattern recognition abilities? To use the internet, we have to become skilled at skimming through large quantities of information rapidly, instantly judging whether we’ve found the information, website, or person that we’re looking for. Also, we have to rapidly shift from site to site. To process all that information slowly and serially would keep us busy all day. We have to put it together, see the patterns, and glean the information that we need. Children are frighteningly good at this. They have no difficulty sorting through complex arrays of information and graphics.  It feels like they read the patterns of the computer interfaces like native speakers. It’s not for nothing that we call children growing up today digital natives.

One of my favorite books of the last decade, Pattern Recognition, by the great technovisionary William Gibson, plays with the idea of what pattern recognition means to us today. Set in the present (rather than some future dystopia, which is more usual for him), the protagonist, Cayce (pronounced case not cas-ee) has an extreme psychological sensitivity to corporate logos, and has what amounts to an allergic reaction to successful advertising. So, companies hire her to judge the effectiveness of their proposed corporate logos and advertising strategies. Her ability is to effortlessly identify the je ne sais quoi – that special pattern – that makes a logo powerful and effective. I think that Gibson is thinking about our era as one in which highly skilled pattern recognition defines what we do and who we are becoming.

So, the question arises: Does that mean I want to sit my 3-year-old in front of a device for hours a day to help him build these abilities? No. But perhaps focusing on the skills he can build will help me think through how to structure his use of things like the iPad more effectively – such as what apps to choose for him, how to dovetail what he’s learning on the device with what he’s doing in the world (e.g., building blocks all the time, learning about letters and numbers), and how to help him see the patterns in what he’s doing.

Of course it is way too simplistic to demonize any technology by saying it will make us stupid. It’s all about the costs and benefits of how we use the technology. That’s why the research community needs to step up to the plate and try to understand how all these aspects of our children’s technological lives are changing them (or not) – what technology offers us, and what we in turn bring to the table in that equation.  We know shockingly little. As parents, we can either cut our children off from technology all together, or try to use our best judgment and make our children’s interactions with technology useful and powerful.  As adults, we can do the same – clearly, we need to think carefully about how we want to integrate these devices into our lives.

Now, sit down and look through your twitter feed or Facebook newsfeed, and see all the information you have to sort through. Tons of it! Reams – just in a given day…. And feel how your pattern recognition abilities are growing!


 

Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight

 

In addition to being a shower blogger (see post from two weeks ago), I am also an exerblogger – I talk through blog ideas when I exercise with my trainer Blair. Mostly it’s to take my mind off the unpleasant task of exercising, but really it’s because I have a captive audience – Blair – who is my 20-something sounding board. Blair is not a huge social media user, but like many of his generation, it’s just part and parcel of his social life and the way he thinks about the world. The topic last week was the psychological spotlight.

The notion is that when we use social media, the things we do and say, the way we look, and the things we find interesting seem to have a heightened importance and to be under scrutiny. That is, we know that our lives can be transmitted (by us or others) at any time to the social network, to be seen, heard, and evaluated. So, psychologically, we’re always on stage, in the spotlight. And if we’re always on stage, then maybe, on some level, we are acting and not being fully authentic. Using social media can sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking down the street who knows that the paparazzi are always waiting around the corner.

And this is what is new about social media compared to previous ways of connecting with others – we can share just about anything, via a wide range of media, extremely easily.  We can be seen and heard whenever we want.   And, in turn, we can be nosy parkers and learn a lot about others whenever we want. Decades ago, in her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world around them. But Ms. Sontag did not imagine the level to which social media could take both our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses.

My 3-year-old already gets this, although he doesn’t yet use social media. For him, the impulse to document and to be seen is fully entrenched – “Mama, take a video,” he says, every time he is doing something “cool.” This could be dancing, building blocks, making a funny face, kissing his sister, anything. And every video on demand (that is, he demands the video) ends with my son walking towards me and the device I’m holding to video him saying, “Can I see it? Can I see it?”

And this is what gets me wondering. Am I raising my son to be more self-conscious, more of an exhibitionist, and less authentic about what he says and does, because he knows he will be documented? Because he feels that he is on stage? Does he think he’s special just because he’s being recorded? Maybe not – all kids like to be seen, and among other things, it’s super cute and fun. But the ease of documentation and of sharing with others has taken this natural impulse to a whole new level.

This issue is similar to the debate about self-publishing discussed in a New York Times article over the weekend. The question raised was this:  when parents pay to make their children “published authors,” are they giving children a false sense of self-esteem to the point of self-aggrandizement? Are we ironically, not preparing them for the rigors and tough knocks and rejections of the real world by making everything too easy?  The self-esteem issue here is central because these published child authors feel famous, feel seen because their books are read. They are on stage.

I think there are no clear answers to these issues. I do, however, think that most of us would agree that being on stage is a deeply rooted impulse in our culture today – from reality television to You Tube to Facebook, this has been going on for a long time. Think back to America’s Funniest Home Videos (wait, is that still on?).  I’m not saying this impulse is new, or necessarily bad, but the more central the psychological spotlight becomes to how we all operate, the more we need to take time to understand what it means.

The New Digital Divide

The digital divide typically refers to the gap between those who do and do not have access to information technologies, most notably the internet. But I think a new kind of digital divide is emerging – one focused on the use of social media and computer-mediated tools for social interactions. The gap is not so much based on socio-economic status, or geography, or race and ethnicity. Rather, it is based on a set of beliefs about human interactions, self identity, and technology.

Social media can be polarizing. As I see it, people tend to fall into one of two basic camps. Let’s ignore those inhabiting the middle ground and think about the extremes for a moment:

“Members of the Digital Tribe”: These are the people who keep their devices next to their bed and the first thing they do when they reach consciousness in the morning is check their newsfeed. These folks like to feel “plugged in” and connected to their digital community. They want to have information about the world at their fingertips.

These folks are knowledgeable, on top of the news, feed off of others’ cool thoughts. I would argue that many of us drift into the tribe – habitually checking emails or newsfeeds or tweets. But a true member of the digital tribe believes that life is best lived when a fair portion of it is broadcast to their online social network.

We all define ourselves in the context of our social network – our friends, loved ones, enemies, acquaintances. The digital age has allowed us to stretch this sense of self to include much vaster webs of social connection. Yet, in the case of social media, many members of our network are strangers. Does this mean we feel increasingly comfortable being a stranger and talking to strangers?

Values about privacy likely vary – some folks who live a fair portion of their life online may believe that privacy is overrated, and that sharing random thoughts and experiences is as valid as sharing deeply genuine feelings. Other may feel the opposite.

Members of the Tribe hold up the mirror of social media, look in, and see themselves. And what a fascinating and beautiful mirror it is. Incredibly rich; almost too much to process.

These are the romantic technophiles.

“Worried Outsiders”: Worried Outsiders are not necessarily the “disconnected.” Instead, these are the folks that probably use at least one or several forms of social media. But, in their dark moments, when they’re sitting at the café thinking about life, or laying awake in bed at night, they may picture a future dystopia in which we scuttle around in some anti-social, dark, cityscape and are ‘jacked into” some virtual digital reality via our brain stem. Think Blade Runner meets The Matrix.

These are the people that are REALLY annoyed when they find out about their sister’s engagement – on Facebook. These are the people who still prefer a nice conversation on the phone to other ways of getting things done. These are the people who daydream instead of get on their devices to fill the time.

These might also the same people that might have, if they were alive at the time, voiced grave concerns about that new fangled device the telephone when it first came out. Or the television. Or anything that changes how we interact as social and emotional beings.

That is not to say that this group is comprised of luddites and romanticists (although there are surely some here). Instead, these are the ones that wonder about where it’s all going… and whether it’s all good.