Twitch Speed, part last

With heavy heart, I return to my analysis of the Twitch Speed paper, and begun here and continued here. Originally I thought I’d enjoy this bit, but as I’ve got more involved in the literature, I’ve realised – with help of some of you out there – that I’d much rather just move on. I’ll make this my last post on the seminal paper, and to boot I’ll throw in some comments on “Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning”. Then I’ll return that book to my colleague. And then I’ll finally move on.

The sections I’ll look at this time are Parallel vs. Linear Processing and Random Access vs. Linear Thinking. At first it seems obvious – parallel processing has to be better than linear: being able to deal with multiple strands at once. And old fashioned liner thinking! Who could possibly want that!

I think Prensky made a clever choice of terms here, so I’m going to change the labels for a start. So question: What do you call linear processing combined with linear thinking?


Collecting thoughts to build a structured argument, focussed thinking on a topic. Critical thinking. Even Prensky admits that this may be a problem to some extent:

A difficult challenge is how to create experiences that allow people to link anywhere and experience things in any order yet still communicate sequential ideas and logical thinking.

Actually, I’d say the challenge is how to help them learn and develop their critical thinking skills. Elsewhere (part two of ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’) Prensky has made a big issue out of how adaptable the human brain is. So there is every hope that we can find ways to help today’s twitchy youth become less reliant on constant stimulation and novelty.

Actually, its a lot less simple than this. Many great thinkers have been distinguished by their ability to pull on different strands of thought, and bring together different ideas in valuable ways. But establishing an argument still requires a certain degree of linearity: understanding that consequences follow on from other factors.

As well as disagreeing with this overview, I also disagree with many of the details in these two sections. So time to give them the paragraph by painful paragraph treatment. Starting with Parallel Processing vs. Linear Processing.

First, are the over 30′s uncomfortable with multi-tasking? I recall from my youth that my mother would do household chores while watching television and holding conversations. Not too different from some of the multi-tasking examples of todays youth that Prensky gives. My mother also told me about an aunt of hers who was able to hold three different conversations on different topics and in three languages at the one time. How’s that for multi-tasking! And I suspect that any study of “young computer artists” would discover that the amount of attention they pay to their music, and involvement in chatter, drops when they are fully involved in a task. (Dare I mention flow here :) – see the previous post for the discussion on that!)

Paragraph 2. Does a viewer of a modern news programme, where the screen is covered in different pieces of information receive more news in the same amount of time? Certainly. Do they get the same depth of information? Certainly not. Facts without hope of much real understanding. Facts presented in such a way as to explicitly discourage understanding – almost saying that it doesn’t matter if you know the causes or consequences of any of these events, its the number of events you know about that counts. Again, time to invoke Neil Postman’s excellent and his ironically entertaining “Amusing ourselves to death”.

Paragraph 3. It has been said in discussions in this blog that Prensky sometimes adapts his message to his audience. This paper was published for business leaders. And so, in this paragraph we read that “managers should be thinking of additional ways to enhance parallel processing and take advantage of this increased human capability“. It is clear that the dream of increased productivity is being sold here to the audience that clearly wants to buy. Personally, I don’t see this as any “worker’s Nirvana“, Nintendo generation or otherwise.

You may be happy to know I don’t have much to say on para 4 – the history of business organization is not a strong point of mine. Next.

At last we reach the section on Random Access vs. Linear Thinking. And it only has two paragraphs!

Para 1. Prensky claims that the hypertext information structure of web has increased the awareness and ability of youngsters to make connections. This is a very dubious, and unsupported statement. There is a difference between being able to follow hypertext connections and being able to mentally form meaningful connections between seemingly dis-connected facts. Is being “freed from the constraint of a single path of thought … generally an extremely positive development“? Not when individuals have to struggle when it is useful or necessary to do so! As noted above, even Prensky recognises that there are some problems with this.

Para 2. After some blah about corporate intranets, Prensky brings in big guns, the military. If the military do it, its got to be right, right? Anyway, we are told a little about an information sharing system developed by the US military which makes information gathered available electronically near-instantly – and which allows access, browsing and investigation of the data. Prensky describes it as “the freedom to create and explore random paths that lead to new ideas“. Personally, I’d hope that more time was spent following interesting or meaningful paths rather than random ones, and I can’t shake the feeling that what may be a very useful and capable data-sharing network is being sold here as something much more than it is.

I can’t really argue with the vague statements calling for more use of modern electronic alternatives to traditional business reports and communications media. In many cases tools like wikis really can help teams share, access and update information far easier than to-ing and fro-ing with long written reports and design documents. So, to some extent, I don’t disagree with all of the solutions or systems that Prensky would have business leaders adopt – but I strongly disagree with his analysis of why.

I stated above that linear thinking and processing could perhaps be renamed reasoning. What about parallel processing and random access? Does this lead to disjointed, mixed-up thinking? I think we have to recognise that thinking about too many things at once and replacing focussed attention with a channel-surfing approach to data collection might lead to severe problems with analysis. As Neil Postman argued it is the role of the education systems to adapt to the media society, not to unthinkingly adopt wholesale the media culture – but to recognise how it may impact on students’ styles and ways of thinking, and to try to cure problems that result.

Want an example of parallel processing, random access writing? I’d refer you to the section in the paper on Fantasy vs. Reality. As I argued before this is a good example of disjointed facts being used to support a conclusion despite very limited connection actually existing between the supposed causes and consequences.

In the 21st century the skills of recognising what information is relevant, and understanding why and how will continue to valuable life and work-place skills. Having access to more and more information may be making this more important than before. The internet-age brings a vast increase in access to data, facts and factoids. Critically evaluating and analysing this will require some good old fashioned reasoning.

phew. Made it. And now I realise that I also promised to deal with “Don’t bother me mom…” in the same post. So very quickly, in bullets! Note: I have not read the book in full. I have browsed it only, and read a few chapters. I do not plan to read the book in full, it would upset me too much.

  • The title. It’s very patronising. I hate it, but not half as much as my wife does. It’s actually a real life quote (given somewhere in the book) paraphrased to make it real annoying and provocative.
  • The book itself is written in a fairly patronising tone. I know that my wife and I aren’t really the target audience, but it really does come across like that to us.
  • He appears to write off the value of almost every form of learning that isnt a computer or video game, and is generally wrong to do so.
  • He exaggerates the learning value of non-educational games, and fails to critically address any areas of concern.
  • He claims that books are not particularly important any more! “…almost everything that has ever been written – with the exception of science fiction and predictions – is about the past. While still important to know about, the past no longer informs the future as it used to.” (p160-161).
    I don’t even want to begin with this one. Funny that this is one of the topics that Neil Postman writes extensively about.

One thought on “Twitch Speed, part last

  1. bea

    The paraphrased title quote is…

    “Don’t worry, Mom, I’m learning.”

    …which seems to me a whole lot less dismissive of those whose viewpoints differ from the author than his chosen title. It also seems reflective of a better parent-child relationship than Prensky gives most of us credit for.

    He does devote significan portions of the book to giving us clueless parents advice like ‘ask your kid about the games he’s playing’ – no, really? That hadn’t occurred to me at all.

    Mind you, I remember being a teenager and finding nothing more mortally embarrassing and unwelcome than my parents asking me about the bands I was listening to or going to see. I can only imagine that having to sit and play GTA with your mum or dad dutifully looking over your shoulder would be equally uncomfortable.


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