August 1996, Volume 3 Nr 12, Issue 36
With the proliferation of the Internet, and Digital Broadcast Systems (DBS - multichannel satellite television), the way seems clear for the marriage of two disparate, but not mutually exclusive technologies, which parallel two human thinking styles. Television and the Internet share the same video technology. The Internet is an anarchistic interactive technology, while television is one-way, somewhat fascistic, and manipulative. Television psychology is designed to make the viewer watch and think in a prescribed limited way and buy the product.
In this issue, I explore video media, active and passive, and relate it to human thinking, divergent and convergent. I look at the symbiotic relationship possible between the two technologies as a consequence of the Yin-Yang interplay and balance possible between the passivity of just viewing the box and participating in on-line interaction of a larger cyber-video society.Differences
The appeal of the Internet is far reaching. The Internet draws its users from across the political spectrum, from left to right, through the center, to mainstream liberals and conservatives. What Internet users share in common is the recognition that the Internet is a team-based information system and problem solving tool. Regardless where we stand in the rainbow of political colors, our indulgence into Internet territory almost always involves a user-initiated foray into someone else's territory. Not only that, a typical Internet session takes one into many other people's cyberspace. We cannot help but be touched by those other people, all at our request.
There are few rules on the Internet. A few years on the Internet has shown me that just about anything and anyone can be found there. There are few restrictions on free speech. There are words of praise as well as flames written in such fashion that they would raise the blood pressure if spoken in person. For the most part, anarchy is the order of the day.
Thus, the Internet is interactive, seldom restrictive, designed to open the mind, to expand its knowledge base as well as its connection to the larger world stage.
Participation in the Internet requires some intelligence and an ever increasing knowledge base. The Internet attracts and keeps intelligent people. Theoretical neurophysiologist William H. Calvin in his yet unpublished book (due in print, September 1996), How Brains Think : Evolving Intelligences; Then and Now writes,
There is an organization in New Jersey which fosters creative divergent thinking. It is called Odyssey of the Mind.
I wrote the following while sitting on a large outcrop at the local swimming hole while our son, Dylan was swimming in fifty-five degree Vermont spring water. It rained yesterday and the Wells Brook is rolling and babbling noisily like the thoughts in my head. There is a tremendous amount of water moving, carving out designs as it flows. The water bunches and speeds up as it is squeezed through narrow passages. I liken this water flowing to convergent thinking.
As we narrow our conscious attention onto a focus of concentration we constrict the parameters of analysis. Like the water in the brook, our thoughts are in rapid movement while the awareness of how and what we are thinking is minimal. Most of the water and our thoughts are underneath what we see.
Television behaves in similar fashion especially during commercials. The viewer's thinking narrows to such a degree that the redefined message becomes the sole point of the medium's existence. Just like the babbling brook, the convergence of message becomes louder and louder. Fast moving water becomes a loud roar and so does the fast moving message. If we carefully observe television we notice that the sound level jumps by decibels while a commercial is playing. It is interesting to note that conspiratorial theorists abound when it comes to politics. The movie, JFK was an example of seeing the world and it orchestration as a conspiracy well planned, financed and orchestrated. Yet, seldom do we consider the orchestration of our private home environment through manipulation of what we see, what we hear and how we think as conspiracy.
Unlike the beautiful Wells Brook that I am hearing, the convergent thinking television medium never lets me in on what is downstream. When a commercial ends, we are taken upstream either through the resumption of scheduled programming with its own convergent focus, or the presentation of another new commercial. And once again, the convergence is repeated ad infinitum.
The totality of the brook experience, however, is such that the water flows from a point of convergence into a wider open area. The volume of water that I could not see except for what is on the surface, spreads out and reveals the effluent that was down under. The divergence of the water is how the Internet functions. In fact, the Internet offers boundless branches of information flow and concomitant thinking through active participation, which in turn, diverges, separates, diverges and so on. In contrast to television, whose point is the convergence itself, the Internet offers choices of divergence rather than the stagnation and boredom of being told what and how to think.
The totality of the brook is endless. After all, where is the source of the water and where is it going? It, in fact, goes around and comes around. There are convergences as the water flows downstream but, always, followed by more divergence! I cannot recall surfing the Internet without learning something new, often taken off the path I was pursuing, touching base with other people. This hardly happens when we watch a Poptart® or Preparation H® commercial. Nor does it happen often watching Jeopardy, As the World Turns or Geraldo.Lateral Thinking
Over the past twenty-five years of teaching I have noticed that our students think less divergently. They also think less convergently. The conclusion is that they, in general, just think less. Schools have, oddly enough, improved themselves over time with research into and the implementation of better Instructional Models. What is happening, however, is that we improve the way in which we transfer knowledge while doing little to improve thinking. I believe that television with its design of fostering convergent thinking has, as a side consequence of its trancefiguration, the proliferation of non-thinking. At least the Internet, by virtue of the user herself controlling inquiry and birdwalking on demand, requires thinking as a requisite for continuation of data presentation.
The Australian Lateral Thinking Business Newsletter has an article on the World Wide Web on a system of thought called Lateral Thinking. Attributed to Edward DeBono, author of Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas and many other books on thinking, lateral thinking according to the newsletter is:
The Australian article goes on to suggest that lateral thinking takes place whenever we are looking for a solution and we achieve that moment of insight when we sense an "Aha!". This is very similar to what I wrote about in the October, 1993 issue of Metaphoria (then called A Course for Teachers) about Grace. I stated that,
Choosing grace as vision is a powerful testimony to the goodness of the self (and is expanded outward). Every behavior, every action, every response is a decision to reaffirm who we are. Each of our choices confirms what we want.
We are beings with a natural-born desire to think clearly, to combine the convergent thinking process of focus with the divergent thinking process of the outward quest of understanding, to participate effectively in the interplay of our lives and others with that of the universe. This "babbling brook", yin-yang symbiosis of convergence and divergence is what lateral thinking is.
Lateral thinking operates as a what if. Scientists use lateral thinking. Example: what if the sun were to instantly disappear? What if we could survive the event? What would be observe? This hypothetical absurdity allows us to stop and think sideways. We might respond with: The earth will take off instantly in a straight line tangentially to its orbit at the moment of gravity's disappearance while it would take some time for the sunlight to disappear - roughly eight minutes. Such an outrageous scenario then leads to such a hypothetical as: since gravity's effects would be felt instantly, then modulated gravity makes instantaneous intergalactic communication possible!
In the consumer mathematics course that I have taught over the years, I tried to show my students that it may not be enough to know just the unit prices of the items needed in order to make the best purchases of ingredients to make a gourmet pizza. While it is valuable to converge on the best price and it helps to diverge, say looking for substitutes for the items we wish to purchase, lateral thinking opens the door for creative alternatives.
We might ask: What if I bought everything in the store? What would I do with them? From here we can imagine having all possible ingredients and think about how we would use them. After thinking this through, we would then come to a conclusion about what we would not need and purchase accordingly. Lateral thinking prevents us from falling into value judgments. Eventually, it has us concentrate on what is important, dropping the rest.Mind Mapping
While searching the Internet for information on lateral thinking, I came across the name Tony Buzon. Buzon did research on note taking. He wrote The Mind Map book which describes a visual system of mind mapping that mimics the lateral thinking process. Mind mapping uses single words placed on a piece of paper (or preferably a computer screen) with the central word placed in the middle. A dozen or so child words related to the central word are placed around the central word connecting to it by lines. These child words, in turn, have child words of their own and so on.
For the purposes of our discussion, let us assume that we have the problem of what to buy for our gourmet pizza. The word pizza goes in the middle while the child words connected to it might be bread, topping, spices, cheese and sauce. Topping might have the child words mushroom, pineapples, olives, peppers and onions. In turn peppers might have the child words red, yellow and green attached to it. Mind mapping appears superior to note taking in that it more closely resembles lateral thinking.Infoglut
Most households in the United States watch television. Never has so much information converged upon us, mostly by someone else's design rather than our choice. And never have divergent thinkers had more and easier access or opportunity to think divergently, mostly by their own choice and design. A small percentage of total TV viewers use the Internet while almost all Internet users watch TV. Together, and along with print media and radio, we subject ourselves to information overload regardless of whether we are convergent, divergent or lateral thinkers. It comes at us so fast, in the form of sound bites, fifteen and thirty second paid announcements, commercials and news spots. Even billboards contribute to the intake of information (Vermont excepted - billboards are illegal here and have been since 1968). In late 1994, the Internet alone delivered a terabyte of information per month. A year later, that number increased one-hundred times to one-hundred terabytes per month. Exponential growth suggests that the number today may be in the vicinity of ten-thousand terabytes per month. According to Rudolf Husar, "our rate of information assimilation into long-term memory is about 1 (one) byte/second or about 10^5 bytes/month taking a full one hour/day of 'surfing' the Net." That is, we retain one byte of useful information every 1,000,000,000 bytes.
There is the issue of deliberate delivery of incomplete information and disinformation. Regardless of how we think, there is no doubt that much of the information is just plain incorrect. The information may be out of date, untested, or deliberately delivered for deceptive purposes. Television commercials are examples of deception.
Consider the phenomenon of urban legend. When I was growing up as a boy in Jersey City, I was scared to death to go by the Armour Meat packing company. The reason? The letters "ILC" were sprayed on the building wall. Legend had it that there was a "crazy man" who ate children who lived in that building and that "ILC" stood for "I love children." There is the alligator legend. In New York City, many fearful children sat on the commode waiting for the pet alligator flushed down the toilet, now a full-grown monster, to come up and bite them.
As I write this newsletter, the Republic National Convention is in full swing. Cable News Network reports that the 1996 convention uses two-hundred-eleven miles of cable hooking it to the Internet. It is the first convention to take complete control over broadcasting. The RNC alone decides what the public will see on television (the Family Channel and USA Network) and on the Internet, who will make the speeches and how long they will be. None of the speeches will be longer than eight minutes except for the main acceptance speech by the nominee, Robert Dole. The format of the convention is that of a pretaped infomercial, complete with music at the appropriate places and staged demonstrations. Spontaneity is eliminated in favor of carefully orchestration and spin.
Consider the World Wide Web homepage for the Republican National Convention which opens with, "Welcome to Republican Main Street!". There are options for: | Newsstand | Cafe | Post Office | Gifts | GOP TV | School | Guest Book | What's New | RNC H.Q. | Links | Convention | Tools | Help | Search |. Below, there is a "Clinton Calendar" button which takes you to "The Interactive Clinton Calendar Day by day, scandal by scandal, flip-flop by flip-flop, it's all here." The page includes two graphics: one, an animated waffle and the other a man reaching in and pulling out an empty pocket. The welcome message claims making history, that for the first time a political convention involves the people in a participatory process - on-line. I could not find the Democratic Convention on-line.
If an idea or story is repeated often enough, it will be eventually believed. Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote, "The broad mass of a nation [...] will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one." With ever increasing terabytes of information heading our way, there is an increasing demand for us to think. Just as there is an ever-widening gap between the richest and poorest members of our society, so too is there an increasing gap between those who think critically and skeptically, and those who accept without question. The phrase "Question Authority" seems more relevant now than ever.
Our discussion however, begs the question. Given that we do think, must we? Should we subject ourselves more and more to the ever louder babbling brook of information with ever more conscious, lateral thought? The answer, I believe, is both yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that we cannot not think. When we do think however, we can combine the best of convergent and divergent thinking. We can think laterally. No, in the sense that we need to find a way to turn off the thinking machine, to give it a break. The word mind means just that: to mind, to mull. Beyond a certain point, overthinking, like overeating, becomes an obsession. We can learn to rest and quiet the mind. We can train ourselves to give our mind periodic vacations from constantly trying to figure things out.The Heavy Thinker
(This is a wildly popular and wildly circulated piece. We would love to give the unknown author credit.)
It started out innocently enough. I began to think at parties now and then to loosen up. Inevitably though, one thought led to another, and soon I was more than just a social thinker.
I began to think alone --"to relax," I told myself --but I knew it wasn't true. Thinking became more and more important to me, and finally I was thinking all the time.
I began to think on the job. I knew that thinking and employment don't mix, but I couldn't stop myself.
I began to avoid friends at lunchtime so I could read Thoreau and Kafka. I would return to the office dizzied and confused, asking, "What is it exactly we are doing here?"
Things weren't going so great at home either. One evening I had turned off the TV and asked my wife about the meaning of life. She spent that night at her mother's.
I soon had a reputation as a heavy thinker. One day the boss called me in. He said, "Skippy, I like you, and it hurts me to say this, but your thinking has become a real problem. If you don't stop thinking on the job, you'll have to find another job." This gave me a lot to think about.
I came home early after my conversation with the boss. "Honey," I confessed, "I've been thinking..."
"I know you've been thinking," she said, "and I want a divorce!"
"But, honey, surely it's not that serious."
"It is serious," she said, lower lip aquiver. "You think as much as college professors, and college professors don't make any money, so if you keep on thinking we won't have any money!"
"That's a faulty syllogism," I said impatiently, and she began to cry. I'd had enough. "I'm going to the library," I snarled as I stomped out the door.
I headed for the library, in the mood for some Nietzsche, with a PBS station on the radio. I roared into the parking lot and ran up to the big glass doors... They didn't open. The library was closed.
To this day, I believe that a Higher Power was looking out for me that night.
As I sank to the ground clawing at the unfeeling glass, whimpering for Zarathustra, a poster caught my eye. "Friend, is heavy thinking ruining your life?" it asked. You probably recognize that line. It comes from the standard Thinker's Anonymous poster.
Which is why I am what I am today: a recovering thinker. I never miss a TA meeting. At each meeting we watch a non-educational video; last week it was Porky's. Then we share experiences about how we avoided thinking since the last meeting. I still have my job, and things are a lot better at home. Life just seemed... easier, somehow, as soon as I stopped thinking.
© 1996 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski