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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - April 2005   
 In Brief

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Title  Computers, memory and thought

How has the relationship between humans and machines evolved, since the latter acquired a digital memory of almost limitless capacity and can juggle with content at increasingly impressive speeds? Do these new devices require different approaches to – and types of – intelligence? How does this affect our relationship with knowledge, memory and reality? To what extent can personality come into play and influence the way we use machines? Konrad Morgan, a Professor specialising in the psychological and social impact of new technology, at Bergen University in Norway, explains.

Konrad Morgan
Konrad Morgan
Plato thought writing was bad for the memory. So what about digital memory and its almost limitless storage capacity?

I do not think that Plato felt there was anything bad about writing as such, but was expressing concern that, once something is written down, it no longer needs to be memorised in order to remain useful. For a long time, books were extremely rare objects transcribed by hand and the majority of the population was illiterate. So considerable effort went into developing ways to encourage people to remember facts and principles. With printing, such memory training methods were no longer needed and, instead, society could rely on printed words as their ultimate source of authority and authenticity.

Digital information tools brought a similar type of revolution to that brought by printing, not merely because material could be rapidly and easily duplicated, but also because digital tools can be developed with skills and specialised knowledge built into them. With these new digital applications, not only can relatively inexperienced users manage enormous amounts of information, but they can also – without even thinking – apply principles and methods within their operation which would have taken previous generations many years to understand and use successfully.

Are we not at risk of becoming totally numbed by this push-button culture, instead of using our mental capabilities? Stephen Bertman of Windsor University, Canada, author of Cultural Amnesia, believes that “computers are diverting us from a reflection on basic values. Worse, they divert us from reflection itself.” What do you think about that?

Obviously technological developments do raise the possibility that we will rely increasingly on these tools to work for us, communicate between us and, of course, entertain us. Some authors have expressed a concern that we will be faced with a population that only wants to be fed entertainment passively and that, without the stimulus of effort and training, we could degenerate into beings that are unable to use our cognitive abilities as effectively as previous generations. However, I think it would be too simplistic to view the changes associated with this digital revolution as totally negative, and to assume that it is producing a generation of ‘digital idiot whiz-kids’ who can perform amazing feats without any understanding.

Digital tools are manipulated and used at a different tempo, with different gestures and, probably, with different frames of mind and intelligence. Are we entering into new relationships with knowledge, memory and reality?

© Michel Van den Eeckhoudt
© Michel Van den Eeckhoudt
When digital tools allow students easy access to greater expertise and information than is available with their teacher, then educators must change their role from being mentors who train novices in specialised skills and knowledge to facilitators who enable young people to use the digital learning environment. We can see this change in many of the theories that are now being put forward within digital learning. Teachers talk about knowledge and skill being part of a ‘collaborative whole’ that includes the users of a system and the digital information tools in the system almost as equal partners. In such a view, it is no longer the ability and effort of an individual that is important but, rather, how effectively the entire collaborative system performs. What is not often discussed is the impact such a paradigm change in education has on the way that individual ability and effort is assessed by educators, or if the established assessment methods are still a realistic or even desirable goal.

What do you think the impact of these changes on human cognition and memory will be? What will be the impact on understanding, analytical skills, critical dialogue and the ability to nuance?

There has been some discussion in recent years as to whether individuals who are heavily involved in using digital environments change the fundamental nature of their cognitive abilities. Some research has reported that the digital generation have changed their preferred communication modes, moving from the written word to visual and auditory methods. But such observations probably do not show a drop in basic cognitive abilities in the new generation (as one may think) but appear to highlight that sections of our society do not take part in, or understand the basis for, these changes. We have a divide in understanding that is heavily associated with age, so it is very easy for those used to more traditional methods to dismiss new preferences in communication, knowledge accumulation and task performance as being in some way ‘weaker’ or ‘less developed’ than the more traditional approaches. I do not think we are seeing a degeneration of human memory or cognitive ability but, rather, recognition by a generation that certain skill sets and knowledge sets may no longer have to be mastered through extensive practice.

Will these changes have only positive effects?

It is too early to tell but I hope that they favour the general improvement of society. The only occasion when problems do emerge with such a change is when the supporting technology breaks or malfunctions. Then the new approach does face a very real problem. There are numerous examples of when users of advanced digital tools are unable to detect when there is an error in the output of their system because they lack the basic knowledge or skill to detect this.

How, then, is the new generation of information society children changing or developing? Have they acquired new qualities? Have they lost some others?

New generations are not necessarily going to be any worse or better off in their basic cognitive skills than previous generations. The differences they do exhibit are more in the ways that they deal with the issues of ‘identity’ and ‘ownership’, as I have called them in my work. They expect rapid and more frequent information flows in news, data and communication. They also have much wider and often more superficial networks of friends. They follow much more loosely defined rules for identity and ownership of digital materials. It is not unusual for one user to have numerous digital identities, sometimes with different genders and ages. They exhibit more of a tendency to view digital media as being without fixed rules of ownership. What they often view as creation would be regarded as synergy or even plagiarism when applying more traditional value sets. 

So should we then amend our conception of plagiarism?

No, not at all. It seems to me that, until we can find some solution to the three conceptual challenges of identity, ownership and truth – which I believe are the three main issues associated with the digital world – we will be plagued with people impersonating others, people plagiarising or stealing digital items, and contravening ownership rights, and being misled by false or inaccurate websites or information sources. 

What, then, do you imagine to be the proper balance between traditional learning and e-learning? Some countries in Asia are planning to move away from this traditional form of learning to develop ‘information societies’. In contrast, the ‘Alliance for Childhood’ NGO, in its report entitled Fool's Gold,underlined what they felt to be the negative impact on children of digital images and digital toys that, they argue, destroy the child’s imagination.

I do not think that the reliability or accuracy of our digital tools has yet reached a stage where we can safely abandon older methods of education. So, I would advocate a form of blended learning which would attempt to provide traditional learning as a basis for understanding the use of higher concepts that may be supported automatically when using digital tools. Such an approach would allow individuals to operate effectively without the support of digital environments, identify when the digital tools are in error and, lastly, to appreciate the benefits of such digital support.

Should digital learning be modulated in accordance with different types of children?

I would advocate matching the personality type and preferred learning style of each student. In my opinion, too many digital learning systems present only one way to learn and all students have to adapt to it. Extroverted personalities might delight in real-time collaborative discussions to develop their thoughts, but an introverted personality might find such an activity so acutely uncomfortable that they may, in fact, fail or drop out of the course. Researchers and educators often assume everyone shares their preferred learning style or personality with the risk of causing students who may not be flexible enough to adapt to fail. 

Could  scientific research be transformed by the impact of exponential increases in computing speed and unlimited access to information?

I hope we will see the emergence of new types of scientific initiatives that are synergies of previously separate disciplines. Such synergies will only be possible because the digital environment allows users to manage and control such enormous amounts of information and have the high order concepts of each discipline automatically embedded within the operation of the digital tools used. Indeed, we could note that, without such a digital synergy we (as a scientific community) were in danger of finding the various branches of human knowledge diverging further and further apart, as they became increasingly highly specialised. Again, I believe the digital society must resolve the issues of ‘identity’, ‘ownership’ and ‘truth’ before we can make any real progress with this revolution.

Printable version

Features 1 2
  Computers, memory and thought
  En route to e-biology


Morgan & Morgan

If you click on the ‘personal’ section of Konrad Morgan’s website, the first word to appear among his life’s passions is ‘Maddy’. This is a reference to his wife Madeleine, a researcher like himself who is also interested ...

Features 1 2

Morgan & Morgan

If you click on the ‘personal’ section of Konrad Morgan’s website, the first word to appear among his life’s passions is ‘Maddy’. This is a reference to his wife Madeleine, a researcher like himself who is also interested in the cultural and social impact of information technology. Konrad and Madeleine Morgan have put their names to many joint articles, have co-authored books and jointly hosted seminars and conferences.  

A doctor of computer science and psychology, trained in England and Scotland, Konrad Morgan is currently a Professor at Bergen University in Norway where he is a member of the Department of Information Sciences and Director of the InterMedia research centre on Digital Learning and New Media. His research interests are interactions between man and computers, differences in attitudes to technology, the use of new technologies in education and the social and cultural implications of information technologies. He currently heads the ‘Kaleidoscope’ task force, a European Network of Excellence devoted to digital learning. His two most recent works are Human perspectives in the internet society: culture, psychology and gender and The internet society: advances in learning, commerce and society, published by WIT Press (Southampton & Boston).