Cyber-Compassion, Learning Shortcuts

Posted: Mar 30, 2012 12:01 AM
Cyber-Compassion, Learning Shortcuts

The Internet is the latest tool for compassionate activism. When the sights of Angelina Jolie's leg goes viral, she magnifies her female celebrity by focusing attention on the miseries of Darfur. She teases and titillates in a celebrity culture and uses her fame for a good cause.

But the Internet is not necessarily the best means for educating the public in injustice. It confuses and deceives, as well.

When a remarkable documentary video called "Kony 2012" circulated on Facebook and YouTube, promoted on Twitter by Hollywood celebrities, it drew more than 80 million hits. Jason Russell, the young filmmaker who made the video, became an instant hero for telling the world about Joseph Kony, a brutal Ugandan warlord who kidnapped unsuspecting children and forced them into prostitution and a children's army to wreak murder and mayhem.

Instant fame is not always benign. It turns out that Jason Russell, a co-founder of "Invisible Children," an organization trying to find Kony and rescue the children, was not careful with the facts. His video contains errors, its history is outdated, and the African conflicts are dangerously simplified.

Kony fled Uganda six years ago and hasn't been seen there since, and the children's army is diminished and scattered. The sloppy research seems aimed at a kindergarten mentality, literally, as the filmmaker uses his son, age 5, to act as a "commentator." Commercial shortcuts peddling feel-good slogans inscribed on bracelets and splashed on posters protesting the warlord's evil deeds eventually drew questions about the filmmaker's finances. He collapsed with a mental breakdown. He was videotaped naked, running down a street in San Diego. He was diagnosed with a "reactive psychosis" and put in a hospital.

This is a story reflecting unintended consequences of the digital age run amok. It has farcical and pitiful dimensions of an Internet melodrama rising from undisciplined, unedited, uneducated electronic overload, when there are no responsible gatekeepers to make sense of high-speed information moving swiftly like a racing car without brakes on the digital superhighway. When videos go viral, they command a huge audience, generating a digital din more like barroom babble than serious debate.

The "Kony 2012" phenomenon has lessons for how we absorb and apply information transmitted electronically. The medium is not the message, but an untamed process. Thoughtful analytical engagement gets lost in a frenzy of self-indulgence in the self-absorbed social media. The digital revolution has been hyped as ushering in a utopian world of knowledge that would expand minds with facts faster than the speed of sound and light (and far faster than Superman's speeding bullet). Cyber-prophets promised a future world illuminated by wizardry and magical teaching, as if consummate hand-to-eye coordination could turn John Locke's tabula rasa into a human encyclopedia.

We're beginning to discover that computers have limitations, and it's time to compute that, too. In South Korea, which leads the vanguard of digital education, the education thinkers are reconsidering their idea to transform all traditional textbooks into a process for the digital age. The experts have begun to worry that digital books may exchange actual experience for virtual reality.

"The concern about the digital textbook is that young students won't have as much time to experience real life and real things," a school administrator of a pilot digital program in elementary schools in Seoul tells The Washington Post. "They'll just see the whole world through a computer screen." The Koreans, whose children famously achieve high scores in math and science, have found that one in 12 students between the ages of 5 and 9 is so addicted to the Internet that they suffer depression when access to a computer is withdrawn. Similar findings for Internet addiction among schoolchildren have been cited in the United States, too.

We've only scratched the surface of the ways the nature of electronic teaching will change not only what children learn, but how they learn and how that will affect focus, concentration, motivation and memory. Another problem is the way the Internet creates opinions and obsessions while at the same time digital words are easily erased from the screen and knowledge is deleted from the mind. Feelings disconnect from the emotions.

"Kony 2012" exposes one way a video gone viral can do harm and cloud critical understanding. We don't yet know what will follow in its wake, but we should be paying scrupulous attention to what the electronic media are actually telling us. What we need to see is not necessarily what's in front of our eyes.