21st Century Children and the Cyberworld

This article is based on a talk delivered at Sudbury Valley School on January 15, 2013.

When I looked at the announcement for this talk, I thought: when this arrives at somebody's home, they're probably going to be a little puzzled. 21st century children? Children are children--what's this about the 21st century? The mind transformed? What on earth could that possibly mean? And how does it relate to the school?

Let me tell you how this topic came about, because it has a back story. We were in Israel this past summer with our daughter and her two children. One is seventeen, the other fifteen, and they had a lot of exciting experiences. (It was their first time there.) They seemed to be enjoying themselves, but they spent an awful lot of time with their cell phones, texting. It was really a little--to be honest--annoying. Here they are in this incredible new world, a new set of experiences, and they don't seem to be the least bit interested. That's what made me rethink what I was seeing, not only with my own family, but also with children in the school, and essentially with people in the wide world.

So let me step back and ask a simple question: what does the mind do? We cannot define what the mind is, any more than we can define what life is. But we have a pretty good idea of what the mind does. All of us, all our lives, perform actions all the time; the word "actions" includes thinking, speaking, and physical activities. Our mind guides these actions. So when we talk about the mind, we are talking about that which guides all our actions. What I call a "transformation" is a substantial qualitative change in the way the mind goes about guiding our actions. I intend to show that there have been some substantial changes in how the mind functions, both during our lives and through history.

Let's start at the beginning. In our early formative years, the mind undergoes three transformations, relatively quickly from the point of view of a whole life span. The starting point is when we're born. Here we are, out of the womb, where everything was taken care of for us and all of our needs were met, and suddenly we're transported to the outside world. And we have to do things. We have to generate actions to meet our survival needs--our sustenance, our shelter, our nurturing. It's important for us to visualize carefully the newborn infant, because we tend to ignore the detailed actuality of what goes on in front of us. If you look at newborns, they're not blobs, they're not stationary, they don't just lie there passively. They're doing a lot of trial-and-error movements, in order to get those basics they need for survival. The infant isn't thinking, "I need my mother to do these things." The infant is engaging in actions that evolution has enabled them to perform, on a trial-and-error basis, to get these things. The mind here is not passive; rather, it is trying to convert the trial-and-error actions into something a little more predictable. That's hard because the infant really doesn't have a clear picture of what's going on, but it does realize when it has succeeded in meeting its needs. What the mind provides at this early point in life is memory, which serves to help reproduce the actions that were successful.

Now, this task is quite trying on the memory. There are a tremendous number of things that go on when somebody moves their arm, or their leg, or their head. The memory registers that certain actions will eventually reach the desired goal. Similarly, it registers that certain ways of crying will enable it to get fed. What the mind is doing, at this early stage, is using memory as well as it can to reproduce successful actions. There's a hope that what worked last time--as well as it can be reconstructed--will work again. Recalling actions enables the infant to zero in, with repeated trial-and-error effort, better and better on the things that work. What the mind is depending on here is remembering actual specific experiences, and that means it has to register each one as it happens. That's a big task for the memory, because there's a lot to remember, and control over actions is not really that well developed.

That's what we've got when we start out in life. But very early on the mind undergoes its first transformation. It becomes self-aware. Self-awareness is a remarkable feature. It enables people to look at themselves from the outside, to think about themselves and about their environment. Most of us know the famous saying of Descartes, "Cogito ergo sum", which is usually translated as "I think therefore I am". I've always wondered about that statement. I've always felt that the idea transmitted by the translation is weird. Think about it. There's no sense in it. "I think therefore I am". How does "I am" follow from "I think"? It doesn't. There is no logical connection at all.

I don't think that's what he meant at all. What Descartes is saying is: "I am able to think about my existence; because I have a mind, I am conscious of my existence." That makes sense, and that's precisely what self-awareness is about.

Self-awareness emerges in the pre-verbal stage of infancy, as you can see if you follow infants in their development. You can literally see them contemplating their actions--looking at their hand, figuring out that it is attached to them somehow, that they are actually making it move. Similarly, infants become aware of the fact that if they cry in a certain way, loudly and persistently enough, they'll get fed--or sometimes not!

This is a tremendous qualitative difference in how the mind works. It leads infants to ask themselves: how do I figure out how to get what I need? Who am I? Memory is still the tool that's being used, but now it's self-aware memory. It's a memory that can enable the infant to identify actions and to figure out that this worked, while that didn't work--to try again, if only they can only figure out how to do it again! This is a terribly difficult and complex process, a process of self-examination using memory to identify successes and failures.

In order for an infant to figure things out, the infant has to create what I call a "framework". The infant has to create for itself a picture of how the environment is constructed, put together. The infant becomes a designer; the design being created is a working model of the infant's world. How is it put together? What are the various parts? How do they interact with each other? How do I interact with them? Indeed, every human being is by nature a designer from early childhood throughout life.

I call these overarching designs "frameworks", because I prefer it to words other people use, such as "theories" or "beliefs". "Theories" suggests something too abstract, while "beliefs" has a negative connotation representing alleged truths that you hold to, no matter what. In a sense, all of our frameworks are theories and beliefs, but "frameworks" gives you a tangible picture of the mental process of construction by which they are created. The infant is constructing a design of the universe--what it is and how it works.

This framework is evolving all the time out of the constant interplay between the design and the actions that it launches, that are suggested by the design. That is an interplay that is ongoing all our lives. Human beings are always engaging in experiments launched on the environment, registering their outcomes, and figuring out some way to fit them into their design--then testing that design against the next actions it generates, and constantly revising their framework in light of the results of their experiments. That's precisely what the infant is doing. The infant is engaged in a series of experiments, which are guided by the frameworks it has designed, and the success or failure of the experiments generates a reexamination of the design.

Not long after the second major transformation occurs: the creation of language. As any of you who have children know, children create language on their own at a very early age. To understand this, I want to elaborate on what language is.

The building blocks of language are words. The interesting thing is that it is really challenging to figure out what a word is. We tend to think that a word has a meaning. If somebody asks you, "What does this word mean?", what do you do? Nowadays, you whip out your smartphone, launch dictionary.com, and find out what it says the word means. Usually, dictionary.com will give you a whole lot of meanings. It will rarely give you just one and say: this is it, and this is the only thing the word means. But, worse than that, the answer dictionary.com will give you today won't necessarily be the same as the answer dictionary.com would have given you fifty years ago. In fact, it isn't necessarily the definition that you personally would use for that word. The problem is that it's impossible to provide a specific definition of any word, even the simplest ones.

This problem was discovered, interestingly enough, by the first people we know of to wonder about words and what words are--the ancient Greeks. This is basically what Socrates' dialogues are about. Socrates was a mischievous character. He liked to confound his pupils by showing them that they had no idea what any word means. He would start by saying to his students, "What does this word mean?" Someone would answer, "I know what it means," and proceed to offer a definition. Then Socrates would show that the answer is nonsense, the word couldn't mean that at all because, as he would show, the opposite definition is also true of this word, so that your definition cannot be valid. Then somebody else tries. And they keep trying. Almost every dialogue ends with people throwing up their hands and being annoyed at him. It's no surprise to me that the Athenians condemned him to death, because he was so annoying.

He had a bright student named Plato, who apparently knew some kind of Greek shorthand, because he took down these conversations, and published them. Then he decided to write his own books, and one of the problems he attacked was the meaning of words. He quickly realized--most likely due to his mentoring--that he didn't have a clue what any word means; that in fact, any definition we give isn't going to hold up. But he nevertheless insists that every word must have a unique and specific meaning, and that this meaning belongs to an "ideal word" that exists somewhere. According to Plato, all the words we use are simply reflections of the ideal word.

Plato's solution has little appeal to us today, but it leaves us with the task of answering the question: what is a word? When we watch children inventing words, we get an idea of what a word actually is: a symbol for a set of experiences that a person has. What a child does is collect groups of experiences that appear to have something in common. That's a personal judgment. But instead of using memory to recall each and every one of them every time s/he is dealing with a similar situation, s/he invents a symbol that represents that whole group. That's an incredibly powerful tool, because before the invention of such symbols, the building blocks for frameworks were the recollections of a host of individual experiences, which makes the construction of frameworks akin to constructing a building out of individual grains of sand. Words are like bricks, conglomerations of huge numbers of grains of sand.

As the child has more and more experiences, they are collected into different groups, for which different word symbols are created. Words serve as a shorthand which is a tremendously powerful tool for building ever more elaborate frameworks. With the invention of language, there is a great leap forward in the ability of a child to create a picture of the environment.

In general, as a person collects more experiences, the groupings change in size and composition, and the meanings attached by that person to the words representing those groupings change accordingly--as do the frameworks constructed out of those words. You see this in a child as it starts inventing certain specific vocalizations. Mothers know this. If you walk into a house and hear a baby making some kind of noise, you probably would just call this generic "crying". The parent however might say, "He's hungry." Half an hour later, the baby's making other noises that sound to you like more generic crying, at which point the mother says, "His diaper is wet, he needs a change." You're thinking: wait a minute, how does she know that? In fact, she has learned the infant's language. She is identifying the second sound as the articulation for "I need to be changed," and the first one as that for "I'm hungry." Those distinctions are real. Those cries are the infant's created symbols for the groups of experiences reflecting diaper discomfort and hunger. The child is creating language, and that ability enables it to leap forward in designing a picture of its universe.

The task that infants undertake is enormously complicated. Some of you probably have suffered through the new math, where you begin with set theory, and you grapple with understanding what a set is. Here's an infant, without having learned the new math, creating sets of different kinds, moving experiences from one set to another, using them collectively to create ever more complex structures of the world--just like sets in math are used as building blocks for very advanced mathematical concepts.

There is a third transformation of the mind that happens early in life: the ability to tap into somebody else's mind.

Part of self-awareness is being aware that there are other people like you, and they're also making specific vocalizations. Furthermore, you are aware that, being like you, they too are trying to create useful frameworks to guide their actions to meet their needs. If they look to you as if they are doing a good job of it (and generally grownups seem much more successful at it than other infants), this awareness creates a powerful urge to open a window into their minds, so that you can access the frameworks they have constructed to explain their world in order to harness the fruits of their imagination to help you. Doing this literally transforms your mind into a collective mind, far more powerful than just your own.

But how do you do that? How do you open that window? The key is language. By watching other people group their experiences, and hearing what vocalizations (words) they use to symbolize those groupings, you can learn their language. The situation is much like that faced by somebody dropped into a foreign country, where the inhabitants speak a completely alien language. What do we do if we're faced with such a situation? We try to figure out what experiences those people are grouping together and representing by a particular sound. And we gradually learn to share their language and link to their minds. So the third, language-based, transformation happens when a child's mind is able to connect with someone else's mind, and experience the expansion of mental capacity that this brings about. As a result, the child now becomes a far more effective designer of frameworks for understanding his universe.

To be sure, there are limitations arising from the fact that every individual's word symbols represent their own unique experiences, and this can easily lead to misunderstandings through what we label "mis-communication". Everyone's language is private, and no two people in the world have the identical set of experiences. So there's no way on earth that any word can mean exactly the same thing to two people. Think about the disagreements you have with friends, with spouses, with family. "What do you mean you love me? That's not love!" "But I do love you!" Is that just a nasty exchange? Not necessarily. It's one person saying: this is my set of experiences that I symbolize by the word "love"; and another person saying: this is mine, and it's apparently quite different from yours. They're using the same word, and the difficulty arises because they're expecting it to symbolize similar sets of experiences, but they don't quite overlap. In effect, every conversation is a translation between two different languages--two languages using similar words, but not always to represent the same meanings.

This aspect of language is significant for understanding the third transition of the mind. Language has concentric circles of commonality. People who are with each other a great deal of the time--like a family that lives in the same house--tend to have a lot of common experiences. So words used by different members of a family tend to represent sets of experiences that have a great deal of overlap. This is why families, or close friends, or close-knit groups, have some words that are almost a private code. (Somebody might say "mayonnaise", and everybody bursts out laughing. An outsider hears this and says, "What are you laughing about? Mayonnaise is just mayonnaise!" "Not in my family.")

The larger the group, the less time people spend together, the less the overlap of experiences, the less the degree of commonality of the meanings their words have. So the farther you go out into larger circles of people who think they're using the same language--and in fact are using the same symbols--the less the overlap of experiences that the symbols represent. Mis-communication arises when people use the same word symbol to represent significantly different sets of experiences. Imagine the daunting task that a politician has. Imagine trying to run for office and imagine that you're trying to talk to people about your vision for your country: "This is what I think is good for the country, this is my dream for the future of our society." You have to try to articulate your message in words that everybody takes to mean the same thing--a virtual impossibility! Mis-communication is thus often not a result of ill will, but rather of the inability to make your meaning clear. This is the reason that the task that every living person has of building useful frameworks for themselves is at its heart a uniquely individual task--and that to the extent that they can share it and look into other people's minds, it is performed with more depth and scope. The third transformation of the mind is what makes such sharing of thought at all possible.

The fourth transformation of the mind has to do with writing. About 10,000 years ago writing was invented. Writing is an interesting thing, because just as words are symbols for sets of experiences, writing creates a visible symbol for a word. This sounds like a simple idea, but it obviously couldn't be, since it took the human race an awfully long time to come up with it!

Once writing was invented, it generated a tremendous leap forward in the ability of the mind to tap into the minds of other people distant in space and in time, people with whom one couldn't communicate face-to-face. Imagine how amazing that is. When I sit down and write a letter, I am exchanging thoughts with somebody far from me who I may never talk to and never see. When I read a historic document, I am trying to fathom the thoughts of people of a long gone era whom I could never possibly meet in person. Yet, because of the invention of writing, I can hope to tap into their thinking, by trying to establish some commonality for our words.

I think that's spectacular. Anyone who has access to written material has the potential to be much more creative in constructing a world view and putting it to the test of experience. In fact, everywhere in the world that writing came into play, there was an explosion of culture--places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Persia, and China. That came from the the vast increase in the ability of people to share their thoughts, to tap into each others' minds.

About 650 years ago there was another transformation of the mind really that resulted from the invention of printing. You might wonder, "Why is it a transformation? Isn't it the same as writing?" The answer is no, because transformations of the mind involve significant advances in its ability to use what other minds are, or have been, thinking. There is a qualitative difference between writing and printing. Writing is limited. Every time you wrote something, you had one copy of it. For example, the most influential book in Western culture is the Bible. The Bible is a hefty book. In order to get hold of a Bible, you had to get a copy that somebody wrote out longhand. I challenge any of you to sit down and write out even one book of the Bible, and see how long it takes! It's a lot of work. Not many people could do it. And because there were very few copies of any books, not a lot of people could read. What's the point of reading if you don't have anything to read? With printing, suddenly there's a plethora of copies of writings that relate what someone has thought or has done, and people can read them everywhere. The ability of one mind to access other minds has enormously increased.

We give the invention of printing a name: we call it "The Birth of the Modern Era".

Let's return to the Bible. Almost nobody could read the Bible, even the few people who were literate. They couldn't read one because they couldn't get hold of a copy. There were only a handful of copies in existence, anywhere. So how did people find out what their holy book said? They had to find somebody who had read it. In fact, there were so few people who had read the Bible that they had a special place in the religion: they were the official scholars who were the experts in transmitting and interpreting its contents. The handful of experts taught the religious officials (priests, monks, etc.) in seminaries, and the officials in turn instructed the masses of laypersons in the Word of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

What happens when printing comes into the picture? The first book printed and distributed was none other than the most important book, the Bible, which quickly became a best seller. All of a sudden, people, even ordinary people, could read the Bible anywhere, and those who couldn't read were motivated to learn so that they too could read the Bible. Many concluded that the book didn't actually say what they had been told it said. Martin Luther got so angry at this that he posted his famous "theses" on the doors of his church, that basically said that what they had been told by church officials was the word of God was all wrong, and they could see for themselves what was right. The fifteen-hundred year old edifice of Catholicism that encompassed the entire Western world was torn down just because now anybody could feel capable of linking into the minds of the people who wrote down the contents of the Bible in ancient times.

That's an example of the power of the transformation of the human mind brought about by printing. Why does the Modern Era represent the widespread development of all aspects of culture? Why is there an enormous flood of new frameworks for understanding the physical world, the arts, philosophy, literature, mathematics and technology? Where did it come from? After all, there were always people building frameworks from the first appearance of humans on earth. But, thanks to printing, the number of people inventing new frameworks vastly increased, and their frameworks guided new experimentation in every domain. Furthermore, printing enabled them to let everybody else know about them and link directly into their thought processes. Printing was and is literally a mind-expanding invention for all of humanity.

That's not the end. There is one more transformation of the mind that has occurred, this one in our lifetime. This is what I have been leading up to: the minds of 21st century children. That too has been given a name: the birth of the Information Age, thanks to the invention of the Cyberworld. To be sure, it's still in its early stages, but it's got a wholly different character than the Modern Era that it has replaced.

Let's examine the limitations on the mind of the Modern Era, so we can see how the Information Age has dealt with them. There were several significant limitations. First and foremost: access. No matter how many books you printed, you couldn't reach the majority--or even a significant minority--of the global population. How many books could be printed? Suppose you printed ten million Bibles, and they're put in 10 million homes and institutions, so that, say, 100 million people could have access to the Bible. Even so, this is a small portion of the world population. Imagine how different it would be if you could tap into everybody's mind, in the whole world!

Second, time was a limitation in the Modern Era, because most of the population was busy working just to survive. They were working from morning until night on their farms, in factories, in offices, just to support their basic needs. Only a tiny fraction of the population, which existed on the backs of all the people who were doing the drudge work, had the leisure to sit back and say: let's build frameworks, let's talk about the universe, let's create culture, let's write books, let's do art. It took a lot of drudge work for that fraction of the people to have that leisure. (The person who first articulated the connection between leisure and culture was Aristotle, who understood that in ancient Athens only a small proportion of the population created the entire Greek culture, thanks to the toil of a huge number of slaves and lower classes.)

The third limitation of the Modern Era was the limitation posed by the need for a common language to make it possible for minds to be linked. As I said earlier, the key to having a common language is shared experiences. There's no way to have a common language among people who don't share experiences. Printing allowed people in diverse environments to broadcast their experiences but the audience here was limited too--it's hard to learn a foreign language out of a book.

The Information Age does away with all these limitations. The Cyberworld gives all people everywhere the potential for instantaneous universal access to each other--a potential well on its way to realization. In fact, the number of people today who are linked to each other through the Cyberworld is rapidly approaching the overwhelming majority of humanity. And it's happening in fascinating ways. You don't even have to be literate to be a participant in the Cyberworld. Just recall the experiment made by Sugata Mitra, a well-known Indian physicist, who worked at the Indian Institute of Technology. It was located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Delhi, where the kids didn't attend school and were totally illiterate. The Institute had a wall around it. He made a hole in the wall--it's called "the hole-in-the-wall experiment"--and placed a computer monitor in the hole, one that could be operated by touch. He just set it up and turned it on, and then recorded the activities of the children in its vicinity with hidden cameras. What he found out was something remarkable: that the kids taught themselves how to use computers! He wrote in his report of this experiment--which became widely known and then widely ignored--that they actually found features of Windows that Microsoft hadn't documented! That was, of course, because they were free of preconceived notions, and they were building their own frameworks out of their set of experiments. So they too found ways to access minds all over the world.

The time limitation is being eliminated as well, at an increasing pace. In the Information Age we are approaching the point where most, and eventually all, routine work is no longer done by people who act as robots; indeed, in theory, any routine activity can be automated. The percentage of the population that actually has the time to read, to think, to wonder about what others are thinking, has already increased significantly.

The most important development in the Information Age is the emerging disappearance of any limitations on the ability to share experiences. The Cyberworld has made it possible for people to share experiences in a way that was never possible before. The social media and the cloud basically amount to mechanisms for people to share their experiences with a huge audience with whom they are not in direct contact, and for the most part will never get to know as individuals.

Ask yourself: why on earth would anybody be interested in information somebody whom they don't personally know posts on Facebook? This is a question I kept pondering. I do not have a Facebook account, because the idea of it terrifies me. I know that if I get a Facebook account, I'm going to be curious to read all the stuff to which I have access. Even if I'm not a priori interested in it, I'll be curious to read it, because what I'm getting access to are the experiences that are happening in remote places to people I know, as well as to people I don't know. I gain access to what they're doing and what they're thinking--to a part of the workings of their minds.

This is where 21st century children come into play. The Cyberworld is a part of them, its workings linked directly to their minds. They're practically born with it now. And that is utterly fascinating to watch. The other day, not that long ago, I went into the pantry at school and I saw a five year old girl perched on the pantry shelf with a smartphone in her hand, working away at it. She's five! She knows more about that device than I know about mine, by a mile. The first experience I had of this was quite a few years ago, with five year olds in our computer room at school, which is linked to the internet through a fast connection.

The Cyberworld is part of their lives. They know it. They use it. I remember giving talks decades ago, talking about the social, intellectual and developmental importance of the kind of communication that shares experiences. Let me tell you the example I always used, which will make you laugh. I would say, "Parents get all worked up about their kids spending hours and hours on the phone." They shouldn't be bothered, because their children are sharing experiences that are important to them. When they spend an hour talking to each other about what they're going to wear to a certain dance, at that moment that's the part of their environment that is important to them. It's important to them how they relate to their peers at this dance and they want to get it right.

I can't say that today, because nobody spends hours on the phone; they text, they tweet, they message. But what I said applies to what they're doing now--only they have much, much more powerful tools to do it. What kids are doing in the 21st century--and they're practically born with it now--is, right off the bat, linking into the universal mind. This is the key. Their individual minds have been transformed in the sense that they can use their minds in cooperation with a whole ocean of minds out there.

We are all familiar with how this has transformed our society. The rate of creative invention of new frameworks and new experiences guided by those frameworks has increased steadily. Why? Because the ability of minds to process and create new frameworks and new experiences has grown by working conjointly with other minds focusing on similar matters of current interest to each of them.

So how does that relate to Sudbury Valley? It should be pretty clear by now, because at Sudbury Valley children have all the time in the world to do this. As we have been saying from the beginning, conversation is the key, but in a much broader sense. Here they converse all day, face-to-face, but most of all, they have time to link and converse simultaneously to their conversations with people all over the world, and nobody is keeping them from doing that, or limiting their access. And they have all the time they want to experiment with the new ideas they have been formulating.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, makes a point that I think is correct and powerful. He says that people who have become extraordinarily creative in our culture are people who have had 10,000 hours to practice and do what they're focused on. That became a phrase--"the 10,000 hours concept". What he's saying is that if you have the ability to focus in an uninterrupted way on the frameworks that your mind is working on, you will be more productive and creative than you would be if your time is limited. This is even more true if, during that time, your mind is able to interact with other minds elsewhere focusing on similar problems.

Sudbury Valley is all about "10,000 hours", and all about allowing students to apply their transformed and expanded minds to any matter that catches their attention. This, more than anything, provides them with unmatched preparation for the 21st century.

And now I've finally explained what the title of this talk means--"21st Century Children and the Cyberworld: The Mind Transformed"--and how it relates to the school.

Which brings me back to the beginning: how my annoyance at my grandchildren's constant texting in Israel--and their apparent indifference to their exciting environment--led me to this talk.

It took me time to figure out what they were doing: they were sharing their environment and their thoughts about it. They were totally aware of what was going on. They were totally excited about it. And they were sharing it with their friends back in the States, telling them what's going on, all the time--much of it in real time. They didn't want to be bothered talking to me, because I was having the same experiences--it would be a waste of time. And all the friends to whom they were texting had a lot to talk about in their own lives that was really exciting.

I had missed the point, completely, and once I got the point, I thought: they have opened my eyes to everything happening around me.

It's really hard for those of us who are "20th century" to see the transformation that's taking place. If you watch the YouTube clip "Medieval Help desk" (the Swedish language version, with subtitles--much better than the English language version) it will tell you everything. It depicts the reaction of a person who is accustomed to manuscripts but has never encountered a printed book. It's hilarious, and gives a taste of what 20th century people go through when they are confronted with the 21st century Cyberworld.

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