Tag Archives: technology

Do You Inter-Mind?

Before the ubiquity of the Internet, getting the answer to a question such as when was the computer invented could take a long time and some serious effort. You might call a friend, read about it in a book, or even go to the library. Now answers can be as close as your nearest digital device.

In a Scientific American article, “The Internet Has Become the External Hard Drive for Our Memories,” psychologists Daniel Wegner and Adrian Ward discuss what using the Internet can mean for human cognitive abilities. They asked students to research trivia online and then tested them on recall. They found that those who used the Internet believed that they were smarter when they gave the right answers than those who did not use the Internet. The researchers’ conclusion:

These results hint that increases in cognitive self-esteem after using Google are not just from immediate positive feedback that comes from providing the right answers. Rather, using Google gives people the sense that the Internet has become part of their own cognitive tool set. A search result was recalled not as a date or name lifted from a Web page but as a product of what resided inside the study participants’ own memories, allowing them to effectively take credit for knowing things that were a product of Google’s search algorithms.

Wegner and Ward suggest that the more we rely on technology answers to trivial questions, the more the possibility of creating a true merger between the human brain and technology, resulting in an “Inter-mind.” They see this possibility very positively:

As we are freed from the necessity of remembering facts, we may be able as individuals to use our newly available mental resources for ambitious undertakings. And perhaps the evolving Inter-mind can bring together the creativity of the individual human mind with the Internet’s breadth of knowledge to create a better world—and fix some of the set of messes we have made so far.

The hopefulness of these researchers is very refreshing when others argue strongly that computers make us dumb (see my post, Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb?)

Still, we cannot assume that freeing previously used brain space to remember facts such as what is the name of that actor on the screen or when was the March on Washington will necessarily lead to cleaning up the “messes” of the world. The latter involves keen social abilities and complicated thought processes such as making connections, logical thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving. These abilities are not somewhere in our brains simply waiting to move over into vacated space. They have to be cultivated and practiced.

Fortunately, educators are working to do just that in many ways from advocating that everyone learn computer science because it embodies new ways to evaluate and solve problems to teaching critical thinking to incorporating active learning in curricula. Let’s hope that these efforts ensure that our Inter-minds use the new room in our brains for the kind of thinking that will make the world a better place.

Should Older Adults Learn to Code?

Should older adults learn to code? No, but should they have a familiarity with what code is, does, and how it does it? Yes.

Coding education discussions are mainly about teaching code in K-12. Those who support including coding say that the aim is not to make everyone into a program developer (although that’s a great career).  Rather, for most, learning what makes a program or computer work is part of becoming a knowledgeable and contributing citizen in the technology world.

I believe that’s also true for adults learning Technology As A Second Language℠. If you use any form of technology such as emailing, talking on a cell phone, texting, or paying bills online, then understanding the basics of what makes it run will make it less intimidating and might even make it enjoyable to use.

Knowing something about coding is like knowing something about how the machines and systems you have been interacting with for years work. You probably know that your car has a mechanical engine with an alternator, pistons, oil filter… your stove is connected to a gas line lit by a pilot light…you put your money in the bank, you can withdraw but it’s not the same money, it’s invested…

Learning about how technology runs, is the same thing. If we didn’t know how things work, then we would be like much earlier generations who believed in magic and superstition. So, if magic doesn’t make it possible for you to write and send emails, what does?

In one of Khan Academy’s programming courses, they compare coding or programming to giving commands to your dog. You say “sit” and the dog sits. What the dog does looks nothing like the word “sit” just like a computer command usually has little resemblance to what it engenders.

Of course, code is not as simple as dog commands. When educators talk about code they mean any language of letters and symbols that can be written as program commands to cause action in a digital format such as games and software. There are many code languages including Java, Python, and Go.

Learning “some” coding means that there is no prescibed time you need to spend or material you need learn in order to make yourself more comfortable with technology. Just do what works for you. Here are a few of the many free resources:

  • What is Code? by Paul Ford  This is a tongue-in-cheek explanation of everything about computers including coding and intergenerational work issues. It doesn’t give you practical experience. Still, it provides in-depth explanations and a great read.
  • Khan Academy Click on Subjects, then Computing. You will find interactive courses in Computing that are geared towards children, but that can be advantageous for beginners.
  • Codecademy Interactive full or brief courses will take you through coding step-by-step.
  • Code.org  has great short lessons. They are also student-oriented but appealing to many adults who are curious about coding.

Learning about code will make you more confident and less reluctant to learn new applications. It may also turn you into an active participant in conversations with the technology generation.

Is Multitasking the End?

There’s an epidemic that’s hard to miss: People texting, watching videos, working, checking their messages, listening to music, walking, driving, talking on cell phones all in the same timeframe. They’re multitasking, doing different things simultaneously or moving back and forth between activities that overlap or interrupt each other.

The most dangerous technology multitasking is driving and talking or texting on your cell phone. Cell phone activity slows reaction times more than alcohol. Then multitasking while walking. Forty per cent of over a thousand teens surveyed by Safekids reported they were hit or almost hit by a moving vehicle while walking and listening to music, talking or texting on their phones.

Still, the epidemic continues to spread. We can try to contain it, but it may be more useful to find ways to save us from ourselves. People are working on solutions such as inventing cars that can stop on their own or drive themselves so distractions such as texting won’t cause accidents.

For walking and texting or “wexting,” one city is wrapping soft materials around light poles to cause less harm when people walk into them. Another has a pop-up ad interrupt texting when you approach intersections to get you to pay attention. To raise awareness and change behavior Utah Valley University designed a staircase with lanes marked walk, run, and text.

Still, the outlook is grim. Articles appear daily with headlines such as “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain”   “The High Cost of Multitasking”  “Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, Studies Show” These articles highlight research showing that technology multitasking can make you less productive, lower your IQ, and damage your brain.

These are all important issues, but how do we continue to adapt to the future with this kind of ominous news?

Looking for good news I found two small studies. showing that the effects of technology multitasking aren’t all bad. One study of children who were instant messaging (IMing) while reading a passage found that although they took longer to read the passage, they tested as well as those who just focused on reading. In another study, Dr. Zheng Wang found that college students who used media while studying were happier than those who did not, despite not completing their school work.

Then I thought I found real optimism in the New Yorker article “Multitask Masters.” When psychologist David Strayer found the more you multitask, the worse your performance, he also found one person who was a highly effective multitasker.  Instead of treating her as a statistical irrelevancy, he decided to learn from her and other “supertaskers.” But, it turns out supertaskers only comprise about 2% of the population and genetics basically determines their ability—their brains are wired differently.

How do we keep hope alive? I have to think that in the thousands of years of human life, our brains have adapted even though we have no MRIs or psychology studies to prove it. Take the telephone, invented in the 1870’s, for example. The sound of a phone ring is so familiar to us now that coma patients will answer phones, speak into them, and then return to their comas! That’s gotta count for something.

Let’s continue to do the studies, analyze the problems, and work on solutions. And, let’s hope that we don’t become idiots or accidentally kill each other before experience with technology turns humanity into better multitaskers.

No More Excuses

When presented with learning technology as an older adult, I often responded that I had a finite number of neurons left to absorb new information, so I had to think carefully about how I wanted to use them. It turns out that recent research has proven me wrong. Neurons do regenerate into old age.

More importantly, new pathways between neurons can be created throughout the lifespan. This is called brain plasticity  We see this clearly with stroke patients who have lost speech or movement. Many of them can “re-learn” by building new pathways between neurons often in parts of the brain where those connections did not originally exist.

A neuron without ways to communicate with other cells is useless. Electrical impulses and chemical substances called neurotransmitters stimulate the neuron. It in turn fires across pathways to create mental activities such as memory, thinking, and feeling. It is particularly encouraging that new pathways have been found in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory. (For a detailed description of neurons, go to HowStuffWorks.)

Based on these findings, it’s clear that I don’t have to be so parsimonious about my neurons.  And, I no longer have an easy excuse for avoiding learning about technology. Neither do you. The amount we can learn may not be infinite, but it’s reasonably large enough so that we don’t have to worry about squandering brain matter. So how do we begin? Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you start:

  1. What is it about technology that interests you? Even if your immediate answer to this question is “Nothing,” think again about what would enhance your use of technology. Is it learning to text or email better? Is it understanding how technology is changing the world? Is it being able to Skype with your grandchildren?
  2. How much time do you want to spend learning? Be realistic. Do you want to sign on for a multi-segment course? Or, would you rather have one-shot experiences such as seminars or videos?
  3. How would you like to learn? If you like to figure things out in private, there are many opportunities that can be accessed easily. Googling the subject matter can get you simple up-to-date information. Senior Planet has great tech tips and videos. Go on YouTube to see videos created to teach technology.

If you would rather learn with others, check out your local library, community center, or adult school for workshops. Join Meetups on technology in your area.

For a more structured class experience, contact a community college near you or browse Coursera, edX, or General Assembly for online courses.

Don’t forget the stores where you purchased your cell phone or computer. They have trained personnel to help you. Or just ask a person near you who is working on an electronic device to teach you a particular application. Most people are very helpful.

Learning technology may not be easy, but it will be worthwhile. It will give you better access to information and communication, and lessen the frustration you may be feeling in a world that is becoming more and more technology centered.

Trial and Error

When I started using computers and they stopped working in some way, I would get terribly frustrated. I would call a computer-wise friend or relative who would tell me not to get so upset. Then they would give me directions such as hit the percent key while you hold down the shift key, then a5(39H)490873, and enter.

If that didn’t work, I would become even more frustrated. But my helper would just take it in stride and say, ok, try this, hit settings, tell me what it says, ok, hold the d key, now try refresh, and on and on. At the end they would tell me, “You see, it works. No big deal. You need to calm down.”

I had many responses to that, but in most cases I would say, “Do you understand what you just did? It took us half an hour of random acts that might as well have been ‘Turn around three times, hop on one leg, hit 4 keys,  and touch your nose with your tongue’ to solve the problem.” That always got a laugh because it’s partially true, but the technology generation doesn’t care. Their love for technology includes fixing the glitches. What is frustrating to me is just part of the process for them, a process of trial and error.

Trial and error involves applying different possible solutions to a problem until one works. It’s often perceived as a primitive method of problem solving associated with practical or mechanical achievements. Young children use trial and error to discover the world around them. It takes a lot of time and patience. Thomas Edison is said to have tried at least a thousand different materials as light bulb filaments before he found one that was economical and relatively safe to use.

Those of us learning Tech As A Second Language℠ like to think that problem solving is the product of great thinking based on solid principles and experience. We don’t want to hear that if you just keep putting different things in a socket, you will succeed. To be fair, Edison didn’t just try anything; he learned from each attempt. That’s how trial and error works.

The technology generation has embraced trial and error. They would rather try different clicks to get where they want to go than read instructions. They don’t mind the moments of failure; they are confident that they will eventually succeed.

This makes sense because technology is a young, practical science. By the time you read the handbook, if there is one, it’s changed. For those who are not tech savvy, trial and error levels the playing field. Anyone can find a way to succeed. And, the more time you spend clicking, the more you learn which clicks work best for each function; the clicks are not as random as they seem to the uninitiated.

So next time your technology stops working or you need an answer to move forward such as “How do I bookmark a website?” get over your feelings of inadequacy and Google for help or start clicking. You will look tech smart and you may be surprised at how many times you can solve the problem on your own.