Let’s launch our expedition by clarifying a central question about media, which was raised in the introductory post:
When it comes to using media, do information-processing technologies help our minds process information?
At first, it seems like a simple question. However, keep in mind that there are many different kinds of information-processing technologies in the world of media, such as. . .
- Print media like books and magazines
- Digital media like personal computers and laptops
- Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs like this one
- Mobile media like iPhones and e-readers
Notice I’m using the word technology in a pretty broad sense. Books, like computers, are information-processing technologies.
There are also many different kinds of information-processing tasks that our minds execute to varying degrees. To name just a few distinctions . . .
- Concrete vs. Abstract: is the info specific (e.g., my dog Bert) or more generic (e.g., the canine family)?
- Conscious vs. Unconscious: is the info deliberately controlled (e.g., doing a calculus problem, composing an argument) or just automatic (reciting times tables, writing words)?
- Analytical vs. Artistic: is the info more logical/empirical (e.g., scientific data) or analogical/allegorical (e.g., poetry)?
OK, before we continue, just two quick side notes:
Primo, these distinctions are just ones of degree, not dichotomies. For example, we often alternate between concrete and abstract thought. (Think of something like the national flag, one moment thinking about the concrete details of stripes, shapes, and colors, the next moment thinking more abstractly about the wider meaning of its symbols.) For the very ambitious readers out there interested in how we think, I recommend the work of George Lakoff (especially his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things) and Wilma Koutstaal (see her book The Agile Mind).
Secondo, notice that there are some distinctions I don’t accept, such as conceptual vs. emotional. Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio (see pretty much any of his books, my favorite being Looking For Spinoza) have demonstrated with overwhelming evidence that all conceptual processing done by our brains requires emotion and feeling. For instance, individuals with damage to areas of the brain that process emotion often cannot make the most basic, rational decisions, such as financial decisions.
So, to return to our original question: when we use information-processing technologies, do they help our minds process information?
Well, the world of media includes many kinds of information-processing technologies, and our minds also do many sorts of information-processing tasks. So the only way to answer the question is to look at different information-processing technologies and see how they help us (or not) with different information-processing tasks.
On this note, we officially launch our expedition.