Yesterday, the International Business Times reported on a couple of studies regarding the relationship between memory and the Internet. Like many titles, the purposefully evocative title of this article, “Google Effect: Changes to our Brains,” was misleading. Instead of “changes to the brain,” the article reported some of the new ways people use their memory capacity and use digital devices as external memory. One of the studies conducted by a team at Columbia University found that people remembered where they saved things rather than the items themselves. The researchers dramatically described the ways the Internet is being used currently:
We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers — and lose if they are out of touch.
Again, the use of the digital devices hasn’t changed our brain; rather, we use computers much like our the friends and coworkers with whom we chat, the notes we jot, the diaries we fill. We have another external memory device, and since we load so much on these devices, we often refer to them when thinking.
Regarding this article, Carol Jago, past-president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently quipped in a tweet:
I like Carol’s response. Yes, all the tools we use and all activities in which we often engage definitely affect how we think and approach our lives. Recently, my friend and colleague Tim purchased a 1938 manual typewriter. Not only did it look stylish, it worked. I demanded that he help me find my own. On a bright Saturday afternoon he and I went to a flea market in Brooklyn, we made our way to a booth that specializes in reviving the classic composition tool. I walked away with my very own ROYAL Signet portable manual machine–complete with a carrying case lid.
Like riding a bike, it didn’t take me long to remember how to press the keys with intention, if I wanted a letter to be left on the page. I tried, first, to revise a piece I have been working on in my writing group, Harlem Writers’ Circle, and immediately I found that I could not compose as I had. If I wanted to change a word, I backspaced several times and XXXXX-ed out the previous word, and then I continued. [Sidenote: The piece soon looked like the cards my grandmother used to send typed each birthday.] In the time it took between XXXXXX-ing the offending word and typing the new one, I often considered new directions for the story. If I went in one of those directions, I found myself typing the entire piece from the beginning, and in that act, found myself–again–entertaining new directions. Neither with a computer nor with pen and paper did I do either of these acts. Because of the speed with which I could change direction with these composition tools, I would have never considered the options for the piece that I found myself considering when using a manual typewriter. The typewriter was changing my brain.
Obviously, it didn’t actually change my brain. I just have another tool for composing that affords and constrains different composing practices. Most technological changes (i.e. from ink to pencil, and typewriter to computer, and now to digital networked communication) have been framed as a issue of the “ruin” of previous forms of communication. Rarely, if ever, has the new compositional tool completely supplanted previous forms and ways of composing. Instead it has been a “both/and” experience—old practices remain, are influenced by new forms of composing. Instead of positive and negative effects to existing ways of thinking, I’ve found it generative to frame the question as affordances and constraints. Instead of worrying about the effects of new tools, what if we asked questions such as:
- What kinds of compositional decisions, practices and challenges do digital, networked communication afford a developing writer?
- What are the constraints of composing with networked and/or digital devices (not necessarily the same thing)?
- At the same time, what are the affordances/constraints of composing with a pen and paper?
Each of these affordances and constraints has implications for the rhetorical, compositional and framing decisions we make as we compose. Conversations about the affordances and constraints, as well as conversations about the implications for compositional decisions are generative for both teachers and their students to investigate.
What affordances and constraints have you noticed when using particular digital tools? How have you found these to relate to your compositional practices?