Technological Leaps: Will the Kids Really Be Alright?

Is the technology of the future more radical than the technology of the past? Alison Gopnik provides some historical perspective.

Alison Gopnik: So, one of the questions that we're all asking now is what effect are the new technologies, the Internet, computers, cell phones, screens going to have on the next generation of children? The answer is we won't know for another 20 years until those children grow up. But I think we can make some guesses based on our past human history. One of the things about human beings is that we've been technological beings from the very beginning. In fact, in a way that's the thing that's most distinctive about us, we use tools. We modify and change our environments. We create new ways of being in the world, both physically and socially. And that's what we've always done and we've always changed. We've always had culture, which enabled us to take the inventions of one generation and then modify or change them to suit another generation. So the fact that we have technology and the fact that that technology changes and it changes across generations, none of that's new. But curiously part of the effect of that cultural change is it always seems as if the technology that we grew up with his eternal, it's just part of nature; it has always been there. And the technology that our children come up with is part of a dystopian Mad Max future apocalypse. And that's also been true for as long as we've been around as human beings.

So, many of the technologies that you could argue really did have transformative effects on us are things like the printing press, the telegraph, the train. We don't think about a telegraph as being an amazingly disruptive new technology, but when telegraphs and trains were introduced there were just as many editorials in the paper saying these are awful ideas. They're going to reshape our lives in ways that are going to be completely destructive of human happiness. Now in some ways that's right. I mean the printing press really did completely change the way that we relinquish the world and related to each other. The telegraph meant that we went from communicating at the speed of a fast horse to communicating at the speed of light. That made an enormous change in the way that we functioned and related to one another. And I think it's quite plausible that things like the Internet are also going to make a change in the way that we think, the way we relate to one another.

But the assumption that somehow this time it's different, this is going to be the change that's going to destroy our brains or destroy our minds it doesn't really fit our history and it doesn't fit what we know from neuroscience and psychology about the way that childhood is this kind of cauldron of innovation. So one of the reasons why we have this effect, this kind of ratchet, this sense that the technological change in our generation is totally different than any of the others is that there's a big difference between the way we learn with an adult brain and the way we learn with a child's brain. So for adults when they learn a new skill it demands tremendous amounts of attention and energy and working memory. We have to put a lot of work into learning how to do something new. So when I have to figure out how to use my cell phone, for example, it feels effortful. I mean it is effortful and distracting. That's very difficult though from what happens with the skills that we learn when we're in the first couple of years of life, things like learning to speak or even learning to read.

When I walk through a crowded street full of billboards I don't feel as if I'm constantly being distracted because I have to decode what all those letters on all those billboards mean. And that's because I learned to do that at such a young age that it literally just takes place automatically without higher level control. And it seems plausible that that for a new generation children who are interacting with devices from the time their babies with touch and voice that kind of interaction will be as natural and spontaneous for them as reading is for me. Now they'll be different. It won't be the same as reading because interacting with a screen is different from reading. But I don't see any particular reason to believe that that's going to be that terrible evil technology as opposed to all the other technologies.

Socrates famously said that reading was a terrible idea. Books were not a good idea because first of all they would destroy our ability to do things like memorize all the words of Homer, and secondly if you had a book you would think that what was written in the book was true instead of engaging in a Socratic dialogue with the information in the book. And Socrates was right about both of those things. No one nowadays has a memory that's good enough to memorize Homer, and we do tend to think that things in books are true and we can't interrogated them the same way we could in conversation. But overall by and large the benefits outweighed the harms and I think that's going to be true for the new technology that we're grappling with now.

Kids in waiting rooms and on transport are kept placid with smartphones and earphones, pressed into their developing canals. Six-month olds already know they need to swipe to unlock an iPhone. Information darts in and disappears just as quickly on smartboards in classrooms. Our attention spans are shot. Our collective impatience is at its historical peak. Will it stunt early development? Is anyone thinking of the children? Well, It’ll be 20 years before we really know the effect that current technology is having on them, but there is no doubt it will change them. This doesn’t cause a swell of anxiety within developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, because a look through our history as animals reveals that’s exactly how we’ve always operated, and in fact it’s what sets us apart as a species. We use tools, we reshape our physical world, and our inner one. When the printing press and the telegraph were introduced, there were similar dystopian predictions of terrible change – and the world was transformed, certainly, but not for the worse. Our love of stability and familiarity is coming into conflict with the acceleration of technological innovation. Adults worry because it may not be intuitive to them, says Gopnik, but young minds learn differently. There may be trade-offs in the way things have always been but in history, by and large, the benefits outweighed the harms, and they will continue to do so. It’s as human to continually advance as it is to grapple with what is new. Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children

Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

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