The More You Gossip, the More Sophisticated You Become!

March 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

Picture illustrating what Habermas means by ‘the public sphere’

Picture illustrating what Habermas means by ‘the public sphere’

The picture above illustrates what Habermas means by ‘the public sphere,’ i.e. the place where individuals hang out and, as an unintentional part of the conversation, identify and discuss societal issues and problems. This sphere exists not only in face-to-face settings but also in the digital world, although there are major differences between the two. In this blog, I look at these differences, particularly within the Arab world where a married couple have just named their baby ‘Facebook’ in tribute to the role that this digital public sphere played in the Egyptian protest! To begin with, the Arabian face-to-face public sphere tends to maintain hierarchical structures, whereby the oldest, most powerful or most knowledgeable individual dominates the conversation. In comparison, the digital sphere, wherein individuals do not know each other, do not meet in the flesh and are anonymous, has transcended hierarchical structures, political differences and ethnic divisions. This indicates huge changes in the balance of power among members of the public sphere. In the Arabian face-to-face public sphere, individuals tend not to take the risk of explicitly discussing any culturally, socially and/or politically deviant beliefs and perspectives. However, the features of the digital sphere (e.g. the ability to remain anonymous and the individual-oriented aspect) make it easy for one to pass under the ‘radar’ of social visibility, cultural domination and political surveillance.

The face-to-face public sphere is available locally at a micro level, whereas its digital counterpart has broadened contact with the outside world. For example, scores of my non-Egyptian friends joined the Egyptian protest group on Facebook, which means that international people got involved with (or intervened in) an issue involving a certain country, taking seats in its national public sphere. This can be read, on the one hand, as enhancing a sense of global identity, but, on the other hand, as intrusion and meddling. In any case, this involvement of such external elements means adding new actors to the power network and relations in the county. The digital public sphere offers a variety of distinctive facilities and services, such as the possibility of documenting discussions, using multimedia to support these discussions, transcending the limitations of time and space and including those having problems speaking and expressing themselves orally. This sphere can be criticised for excluding people who are illiterate and those who do not use or cannot access the Internet. However, although the face-to-face sphere involves a relatively small number of people, the Egyptian protest community on Facebook involved more than eight hundred thousand protesters, permitting the right of assembly, campaigning and demonstrations.

One might wonder why this post is here on a site concerned with learning and new technologies. The answer is that the public sphere is actually a learning environment for adults, where transformative and emancipatory learning takes place. In this sphere, individuals collectively help each other to make sense of their educational or professional and social life, engaging in critical reflection and going through iterative learning processes of examining, questioning, validating and revising their own assumptions and perceptions. In this sphere, individuals exchange ‘gossip,’ reflecting on what they have read, heard and observed as part of their daily experience, getting engaged in complex analytical processes to make sense of these observations, raising each other’s consciousness, comparing their experiences with those of others and learning about each other’s ways of thinking. In this sphere, people learn about politics and learn from involvement in political discourse. Useful reads in this respect are Mezirow (1990) and Al-Salem (2005).

The Mind of the 21st Century

March 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Whenever my 5 year old twin nephews come to visit me I could not help thinking that a child born at the dawn of this century will never know a world without the web, but most significantly, it will increasingly become a web that reacts.  The freedom of the web might chaotic and discomforting.  Yet, for the young of the 21st century, there will be an unquestioned confidence to of access to instant information. As the journalist Kevin Kelly writes in Time magazine:

“Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts and half-baked ideas. It is a flow of gossip tidbits and floating first impressions. Notions don’t stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled by audience.”

The People of the Book, according to Kelly, fear that logic will give place to code, that reading and writing will die.  He claims that we might create whole new gardens of interconnected text and graphic for the user to explore. However, we don’t know yet whether this new type of environment might be ultimately beneficial or deleterious. It could be the case that multimedia stimulation facilitates faster cognitive processing.

Perhaps, rather than judging new minds by old values, we should simply face the fact that the new generation of brains will be fundamentally different from ours, in that they will be especially suited, both cognitively and physically, to computers and a cyber-world.  The essence of the human brain has been for years adaptability to new external demands. Of course, for those born at the beginning of this century like my nephews, technology will be changing even faster; more than ever. Succeeding generations will need to adapt to technical innovation.  However, one fundamental question is whether new generations will be able to integrate material that they can understand intellectually but not necessarily appreciate emotionally. Will the new way of life in the 21st century mean that young people are more mature, or less?

The impact of the Information Age is not simply that of the technological revolution but also an educational one as the maturing of the Information Age is to revolutionize all aspects of education from how we learn to what and where we learn with. In essence, learning as we know it might vanish in favour of a free-association hypertexting that is gradually rationalized. Yet, even in order to hypertext, we all need to have an appropriate knowledge-base first.  How will that knowledge be obtained in the minds of the new generation? Information is not the same as knowledge, and somehow core concepts will have to be in place in the young mind in order for them to assimilate incoming information. While interacting with each other from the other side of the screen, they may never take time to reflect on ways of putting those facts together in a way that we would currently characterize as understanding.

So, what do we want of the new minds of the 21st century? They will inhabit a world of experience, more specifically, screen experience, rather than abstract thought; answers will crowd onto their screens and compete for attention, no longer linked to any clear questions. There may well be nothing about this new world that they need to ponder. These minds might no longer believe that the truth is out there waiting to be discovered, let alone that it is beautiful. Is this intellectual heresy really what awaits them?

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