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My three children—Clate, Kellin and Bryce—in the 80s

As a species, we’ve been about parenting for a long, long time. For all the effort we have put in to rearing and raising our young, we still don’t agree on how best to do that job. But then again, there is little agreement on how to pick a partner (and who should do it), how to choose where to live, what to do for a job and how to optimize our health. Let’s face it: There’s a lot of basic stuff we don’t understand.

Trends in parenting are particularly fascinating because more than the other great unanswered questions, these tend to change with every generation. And it is so bloody loaded. How you raise your children speaks to the moral and lifestyle issues that everyone in every generation has to navigate for themselves. Anyone who grew up during the Mad Men era of the 60s remembers the easy disregard that children garnered, so boomers tried to raise their children with lots of self esteem and personal expression (while searching for that for themselves at the same time—with predictably mixed results). “Baby on Board” Gen-Xers, referred to by some as the “mommy war soldiers” go postal with each other over formula and diapers. For many of the young mothers coming up behind them there is a return to older values. These younger women, many of them part of the Mommy blogger subcluture, value the “New Domesticity”, crafting Martha Stewart perfect worlds for themselves and their children with fierce drive and determination. And then there are the books that become lightning rods for a particular parenting point of view such as Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer; Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua; The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin; and Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis.

At the same time these parenting issues are being vociferously discussed,* other books question the core values of our culture in general. Just a few recent titles addressing these larger issues include You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle; and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

So David Brooks’ is right in line with the trend with his soon to be released book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. In his recent piece in the New Yorker, Brooks questions the qualities that we value most in our culture by profiling those individuals who did it all right, “by the book,” and are now considered successful members of the “Composure Class.” Brooks isn’t so sure, nor am I, that these values produce the types of individuals our world desperately needs now. A sampling from that article:

The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be…

Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

And this memorable passage:

During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived… “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

* For a glimpse into the level of passion with which these issues are being discussed, you might want to read Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs by Emily Matchar (on Slate) and then scroll through the comments (over 300 as of this posting). Whoa. Hit a nerve or what?

Complexity and flow: Never what is seems

Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, continues to spawn conversations regarding what we can and cannot know about the effect of cybertechnology on our brains and cognitive abilities. (A recent post about the book is here with links to earlier posts about agent provocateur Carr.)

In an article posted on Miller-McCune by Nate Kornell and Sam Kornell, the authors draw parallels to the jeremaids written in the 50s about the damage television would do to intelligence and education. That turned out to not be true. (Research the Flynn Effect for more information on this.)

Kornell and Kornell make their case regarding the internet:

Is Nicholas Carr correct to argue that the Internet is remapping our neural circuitry in a harmful way? Critics hoping to poke holes in Carr’s argument have cited a 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, who found that compared to reading a book, performing Google searches increased brain activity in the area that underlies selective attention and deliberate analysis.

It’s not a bad study to cite, since Carr specifically claims that the Web is bad for our neural circuitry. But it’s also misleading, because the term “intelligence” is so broad and complex that neurological research hasn’t begun to explain it in its totality — which means that the study shouldn’t be used to support the claim that the Internet is making us “smarter,” either.

The authors point that everything affects the neural circuitry and that neural circuitry per se is not the place to explore effects on intelligence.

So what, finally, of the simple logical argument that skipping from hyperlink to hyperlink online is less mentally nourishing than reading a challenging book or a long magazine article? Here, critics of the Web have a strong case. Life is a daily struggle to attain clarity of thought, and devoting your undivided attention to something for an extended period of time — like a book — is a good way to achieve it. Better, probably, than surfing the Web.

But clarity of thought and IQ — which is the measure of intelligence independent of knowledge — are not the same thing. The great wealth of empirical data gathered by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists in recent decades suggests that “intelligence” is a broad term for a very complex phenomenon, which makes it tenuous at best to draw conclusions about the effect of the Internet on something as “global” — as the Nobel-prize winning cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman has put it — as intelligence.

So even though bookreading requires a formalized concentration and surfing the Internet disperses it, that is no foundation for saying that life on the Web makes us less intelligent. “It can be mentally distracting, but that doesn’t mean it’s mentally deforming.”

It’s useful to remember, when considering the argument that Web is contributing to our mental downfall, that ruing the invention of new forms of mass communication is a historical tradition of long standing. Television, typewriters, telegrams, telephones, writing in languages other than Latin, writing at all—at one point or another all of these were declared sure signposts of the fall of Western civilization.

None of them did, and if history is any guide, the Internet won’t either.

A rich trove of wisdom arrived in the form of comments to my posting on June 11 about the Nicholas Carr article in the Atlantic (See below.) The issues raised by that piece are an ongoing concern for anyone who lives a rich life both online and in the flesh version.

Rick Mobbs, a visual artist like me, articulated a response to that post that closely mirrors my own feelings. He speaks to some of the themes of the rhizome that I find so compelling in Gilles Deleuze’s writings (primarily A Thousand Plateaus.) It also addresses my ongoing personal struggle with finding a balance between how to navigate the information space where we oscillate constantly between the desire to drill down deep on the vertical axis and our attraction to the wide expanse of the horizontal surface. I thought Mobbs’ comment was worth highlighting here.

I have become a skimmer, a gleaner, picking through left-overs, a magpie, collecting shiny things. I think I would have to choose the life of a contemplative to go as deeply into things as I would like. It isn’t just in my reading but the whole of my life. Too many things to do, too little time, an awareness that the answer is to sit still but the pace is addictive and the life one of wonder anyhow so I’m not complaining. I catch what I can on the run I am on, and boy am I on a run.

The compensations are renewed and keen awareness of interconnectedness, of synchronicity, propinquity, serendipity, of the play of grace, intuition, kinship with our fellows, a certainty – for myself anyway – of the reality of callings, promptings, spiritual nudges, subtle touches and tenderings…

For me, I don’t think there is any going back. It is too late. Now I have to choose the life I have, co-operate with it, be an active partner with the things that are steering me so that I may steer with as little resistance as possible toward the goals and life I feel are right for me. I believe I have to take an active interest and try to co-operate with an evolutionary trend, and try cultivate a sense humor about it all and a sense of curiosity about how it is all going to turn out. That said, I don’t know anything except by feeling my way through it.