Cyborgs and Zombies in the Classroom

There’s a discussion going on in the Wired Campus blog on the question of how, to what extent, and with what effects students’ cognitive abilities are being altered by new technologies.  The discussion was triggered by an article in The Sunday Times of London, “Report: The Next Step in Brain Evolution” by Richard Woods.

The basic argument is familiar.  Given the pervasive use of mobile phones, instant text messaging, email, and blogs for communication, young people today are encountering so much information so rapidly that multi-tasking and on-the-fly assessment has become the norm accompanied by reduced attention spans and diminished ability to concentrate and reflect on ideas, engage in an extended conversation or discussion, analyze and critically interpret an argument or text, etc., etc. 

When this phenomenon is present in the classroom, the instructor is faced with a dilemma:  Do I do what I’ve always done and try to discipline them to listen to a lecture, take notes, and follow-up with questions and critical comments?  Or do I completely rethink my approach by incorporating more discussion, multimedia presentations, online resources, and group collaborations?

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether this so-called dilemma accurately represents the situation, it’s worth noting the most provocative aspect of Woods’ article — the claim by cognitive scientist Andy Clark that today’s students (and everyone else immersed in digital technology) should be considered “cyborgs” given their radically altered cognitive behavior and emerging skills.  Due to the interfaces and tools we use today, thinking is being increasingly externalized — taking place “outside the head” — to such an extent that “[i]t will soon be harder than ever to tell where the human user stops and the rest of the world begins”. (Edge’s Third Culture profile and article by Clark are here, and interview from 2004 at the Institute for the Future here, and the Wikipedia entry here.)

The notion that thoughts and mental content are not entirely “in the head” is not new to contemporary philosophers of mind (e.g. Fred Dretske, to take just one recent example).  Debates between internalists and externalists have given rise to a vast literature on the topic.  To what extent this is relevant to how students acquire and make use of information is not obvious to me.  But surely we’ve reached the point where our reflections on the matter and our pedagogical responses can and should go beyond the anecdotal by taking advantage of current empirical evidence.

Actually, I’m probably less concerned about cyborgs than I am about zombies in the classroom.

Atta Kim — Approaching a Universal?

This afternoon we saw, Atta Kim: On Air, an exhibition of large format photographs by the Korean artist Atta Kim at the International Center of Photography.  Most of the work in this small show is visually interesting and conceptually clever.  The most remarkable and noteworthy images, however, are the composite photos of faces: Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Men, 2005; Self-Portrait Series, 100 Tibetan Women, 2005; and Self-Portrait Series, 100 Countries/100 Men, 2004.  For each of the images, Kim photographed 100 visually distinct individuals and layered the images to form a composite “portrait”.  The results are not necessarily what you’d expect.

Atta Kim, ON-AIR Project, Self-Portrait Series, 100 Countries/100 Men, 2004

The final image is, I assume, the mean of the individual images.  The differences at the edges in the size and shape of the ears, the size of the head, the configuration of the hair, etc. are rendered out-of-focus.  The regions in sharpest focus are around the eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth.

I was struck by the fact that elements one would typically refer to as flaws — a crooked nose, scars, skin blemishes, asymmetries, etc. — are cancelled out in the composite.  The result a kind of perfect and symmetric beauty — a straight and gently rounded nose, wide round eyes, full lips, and a smooth round face overall.

The individual images from which the composites were formed are exhibited with the final work.  It’s worth considering the source for each.  You may be inclined to think that 100 images of Tibetan men and women would, given the biological and regional parameters, reveal general similarities.  And, to some extent, they do.

But the 100 men from 100 different countries are about as diverse a set as you would find if each individual was chosen randomly.  (One qualification: Judging from the source photos, I would guess the age of the subjects ranged from around 24 to 60.)  Head size and shape, skin color, amount and configuration of hair, shape of noses, chins, eyes, etc. vary considerably from one person to the next.

If Kim has not intervened to smooth out or in any way alter the composite, the result is not what I would have predicted.  This is not a monster.  Far from it.  The composite figure strikes me as serene, appealing, and beautiful.  (This is true of all three figures, by the way.)  Why is that the case?


Holland Cotter’s review of the exhibition is in the 12 July 2006 New York Times.

“Fear of Form”

Roberta Smith has a review in today’s NYTimes of an exhibition currently up at Bard that was curated by three Europeans.  “It originated last October at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, where it was organized by Gunnar Kvaran, the museum’s director, working with two high-profile critic-curators: Daniel Birnbaum, director of the alternative space Portikus in Frankfurt, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London.”

It focuses on contemporary American art by artists mostly in their 20s.  Smith’s review makes it sound symptomatic of so much recent work that’s heavily dependent on a late-pop conceptual-construction-installation sensibility.

Here’s an extended excerpt:

The show has an endgame, end-time mood, as if we are looking at the end of the end of the end of Pop, hyperrealism and appropriation art. The techniques of replication and copying have become so meticulous that they are beside the point. This is truly magic realism: the kind you can’t see, that has to be explained. It is also a time when artists cultivate hybridism and multiplicity and disdain stylistic coherence, in keeping with the fashionable interest in collectivity, lack of ego, the fluidity of individual identity. But too often these avoidance tactics eliminate the thread of a personal sensibility or focus.

I would call all these strategies fear of form, which can be parsed as fear of materials, of working with the hands in an overt way and of originality. Most of all originality. Can we just say it? This far from Andy Warhol and Duchamp, the dismissal of originality is perhaps the oldest ploy in the postmodern playbook. To call yourself an artist at all is by definition to announce a faith, however unacknowledged, in some form of originality, first for yourself, second, perhaps, for the rest of us.

Fear of form above all means fear of compression—of an artistic focus that condenses experiences, ideas and feelings into something whole, committed and visually comprehensible. With a few exceptions, forms of collage and assemblage dominate this show: the putting together (or simply putting side by side) of existing images and objects prevails. The consistency of this technique in two and three dimensions should have been a red flag for the curators. Collage has driven much art since the late 1970’s. Lately, and especially in this exhibition, it often seems to have become so distended and pulled apart that its components have become virtually autonomous and unrelated, which brings us back to square one.

It may be worth coming back to this.

The Bard Center for Curatorial Studies’ website for the exhibition is here.