Maltese philosopher Edward De Bono told News.com.au yesterday that social media stops people from original thinking. In a [gasp!] shocking twist, De Bono doesn’t use social media because ‘he doesn’t want to be bullied by information’. He argues:
(Social media causes) laziness – that we just feel we’ll just get more information and we don’t need to have ideas ourselves – we’ll get ideas from someone else, we don’t need to look at the data we’ll just see what someone else has said and so on.
De Bono argues that children should spend less time on social media and more time at school being taught ‘how to think’. I am a big supporter of formal education but I also recognise that this isn’t the best way for everyone to learn. Technology and other experiential or artistic forms of learning are better suited for some young minds. De Bono’s argument that social media makes people ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’ is a surprising and ironically un-informed argument to make, particularly by a scholar who has never used this technology.
It’s always disappointing to hear intellectuals or public figures put down the experiences and innovation of young people. Brian Solis has argued that social media is about sociology not technology. This includes the insight that sociology provides about the generational and social network effects on the adoption of social media. Sociologists can guide not just the research, policy and critique of social media, but we can also guide the education to enhance how younger and older people interact with new technologies. Solis writes:
Almost daily I hear, ‘There are so many tools out there that I don’t even know where to jump in’ and ‘I don’t get why any of this matters, maybe I’m just too old’. This is a classic representation of the gap in how different generations communicate… Younger generations are already communicating with each other though social networks and social tools, and once properly guided, have an advantage for joining more strategic conversations online. However, hope is not lost for the rest of us. We just have extra work to do in order to catch up. (ZZ’s emphasis.)
There is much excellent research on the benefits of social media on education. For example, see the work of Caroline Haythornthwaite, Howard Rheingold, Danah Boyd and the social media reference list she curates. Zeynep Tufekci’s Technosociology blog does a good job at exploring the links between social media, information networks and political engagement. Skype in the Classroom is also a great resource for teachers wishing to incorporate technological resources in the classroom.
Social media is not all positive and it is not equally beneficial or accessible for young people. Access to technology is a problem in some developing nations, although some grassroots programs are trying to bridge the digital divide. Even in technologically advanced societies like Australia, where young people generally have better access to the internet, some sub-groups are less likely to have personal access to a computer or to the internet. Technological access depends upon ethnicity, English-language proficiency, geographic location and socio-economic disadvantage.
While I agree with De Bono that people need to be taught to be critically engaged with the world they live in, this necessarily involves learning about different communication mediums and strategies. Shouldn’t this include social media? Luddite condemnations aside, a critical exploration of information-sharing on social media networks is an important scientific endeavour. I would have hoped that a philosopher might have a more open mind on evolving forms of knowledge and learning.