Skidmore Home About Scope Editor's Mailbox FeedbackBack Issues

Campus Scene
Alumni News
Who, What, When
Class Notes
Saratoga Sidebar


Executive summary On scuba diving and jet skiing
CTMoment Creative thought to the rescue

Executive Summary:
On scuba diving and jet skiing
by President Philip A. Glotzbach

Earlier this year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt estimated that the Internet contained 5 million terabytes of data— the equivalent, calculated from a PC World estimate, of 250,000 years of DVD video! Within this vast landscape are friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) continents and islands, which Skidmore faculty, students, and alumni visit to work, research, and play. Some have even taken up virtual residence in this strange and rapidly evolving space. In this issue of Scope Quarterly we examine a number of ways in which they have mined this rich new world for opportunities to advance teaching and learning and to open up new avenues for creativity and commerce.

The Internet has, indeed, be­come integral to our world. Accordingly, the capacity to use it intelligently (along with the many other new technologies that have en­tered our lives) must be an equally integral component of a contemporary liberal education. Our Strategic Plan states that “today’s students need to be sophisticated consumers of information conveyed through electronic media, and increasingly they need to be accomplished creators of such re­sources.” Toward that end, the Plan outlines a number of objectives de­signed to promote information literacy as a “new and powerful aspect of a Skidmore education.” This is a necessary and important goal, even though we enter these waters with at least some trepidation.

In his recent Atlantic Monthly article bluntly titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr outlines some such concerns. In particular, he focuses on the effect he senses the Web is having on his (and our) ability to read:

[W]hat the Net seems to be doing is
chipping away my capacity for concentration
and contemplation. My mind now expects to
take in information the way the Net distributes
it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.
Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words.
Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

He goes on to cite an expanding body of re­search that tends to confirm his suspicions, suggesting that the style of reading promoted by the Internet—“a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘im­mediacy’ above all else”—could be weakening our capacity for deep reading. Says Maryanne Wolf, a development psychologist at Tufts University: When we operate in the electronic world, the ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply remains largely disengaged, and we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Marshall McLuhan long ago pointed out the consequences of new technologies for the way we think in his famous dictum: “the medium is the message.”

The salient question, therefore, is not whether the Internet is changing how we “process information” but whether those changes are for the good. Furthermore, is this an “either/ or” or a “both/and” situation? That is, can the way of understanding the world encouraged by the Web complement the ways of thinking developed by deep reading, or must it necessarily supplant it?

In a speech referenced by Carr, Google co-founder Larry Page states: “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter.” At this point, any such statement is aspirational—if not fanciful—at best. As John Seabrook points out in a recent New Yorker article, the artificial intelligence community remains far away from achieving anything near its longtime goal of creating a language processing system of even modest sophistication (when measured, say, against the abilities of a six-year-old child). In his book A Whole New Mind Daniel Pink ar­gues that our brains are endowed with many ways of processing and analyzing data that are fundamentally different from those that drive Google’s engines. Moreover, it is these other ways of processing—many of which are often clustered together under the rubric of “right-brain” capacities—that still elude our best attempts at creating “artificial intelligences.” It is these creative abilities that Pink identifies as in­creasingly important in the coming years: the capacity to syn­thesize, to imagine new patterns and paradigms, and to re­frame questions and issues in entirely new ways.

So what should Skidmore take from these conversations? I believe for us the conclusion is very much a “both/ and” one. Our students do need to be “literate” in the new technologies. At the same time, they must be awake to how those technologies influence not only the way we think but also the changing shape of knowledge itself. Finally, they must be literate in the more traditional sense: able to parse texts, focus deeply on a single question, and perform the nuanced analysis that the challenging issues we confront today will continue to require.

Accordingly, even as we leap into the new world of Internet2, we will continue to emphasize the study of texts. Or, to rework Carr’s metaphor just a bit, while we certainly will expect our students to “ski” the Web adroitly in search of information, we also will insist that they “dive” deeply into the likes of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the Iliad, or the Bhagavad-Gita.