Belmont Club

The Return of the Bicameral Mind

A Washington Post article about banning laptops in the classroom claims that professors have found themselves losing to the “cone of distraction” generated by these devices. It’s ironic because the universities themselves exerted strenuous efforts to ensure that every student had a laptop only to find them a nuisance. They mandated them only to ban them.

A generation ago, academia embraced the laptop as the most welcome classroom innovation since the ballpoint pen. But during the past decade, it has evolved into a powerful distraction. Wireless Internet connections tempt students away from note-typing to e-mail, blogs, YouTube videos, sports scores, even online gaming — all the diversions of a home computer beamed into the classroom to compete with the professor for the student’s attention.

But although the Washington Post has cast the problem in terms of distraction these devices pose, the underlying difficulty may be more basic. The computer has become cybernetically part of many people. For many people, “you” no longer means just “you”. It means you and your computer. And how can a person attend class with an essential part of himself removed?

“My laptop lives with me. I’m always on it,” said Madeline Twomey, 20, a George Washington junior. Twomey has used a computer since age 6 and had her first laptop at 15. She senses a widening generation gap. “Most professors, even at their youngest, they’re in their 30s,” she said. “They don’t understand how much it’s become a part of our lives.”

Professors say that students who succumb to the distraction of their computing devices are more likely to do poorly in class. “One recent semester,[associate professor] Siebert tracked the grades of 17 student laptop addicts. At the end of the term, their average grade was 71 percent, “almost the same as the average for the students who didn’t come at all.” But failure is the student’s lookout. If a student is willing to spend money and effort to get into a top school only to opt not to listen, that is their problem. Faced with the prospect of failing, students can either adapt their behavior (put away the laptop) or accept the consequences. Dropping out (either to join a teach-in, become an activist, join a dueling society or play online poker) has always been an option. Why should professors worry any more about the computer than any other distraction?

Part of the answer may be that the wired computer is a direct competitor in the pedagogical delivery space. It is extraordinarily subversive of the student-teacher model. It’s not just a distraction, it’s an ever present competitor. No wonder professors find their use impolite and even offensive in their classrooms. But while turning laptops and the cellphone off (or at least set to vibrate) may become standard for some kinds of meetings and classroom settings, it fails to address the fact that for many people, the computer has become the main aid to memory. It is replacing pencil and paper and the trend is unstoppable.

Evidence of this is all around us. Some phone companies have recently made the delivery of printed phone directories optional because people no longer use them. More fundamentally, some people are learning at a different level of detail in response to the availability of the computer; they structure their knowledge acquisition diferently and focus on retaining an outline of facts with key detail omitted relying  — perhaps unwisely — on the ominpresence of the computer to fill in the spaces. People with online stores of information actually think and learn differently from those who don’t have them. I know a gentleman in his late sixties who actually checks his own verbal assertions as he speaks. When we are on the phone he sometimes interrupts himself and says, “sorry, I see that Bob X was really born in 1959, not 1957 as I remember”. I can hear the click-clack of his keyboard in the background.

It is even worse in the field of our professional lives. A lot of people would be devastated by the loss of their email address books or even their cell phones. They have simply never bothered to remember even the smallest fraction of those contact details. It is no exaggeration to say they might not even remember their girlfriend’s phone numbers and birthdates without them. Without their trusty computers a lot of people would feel older, more disconnected and possibly even disoriented. Digital memory loss is a real and severe event.

Julian Jaynes in his “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” claimed that men once heard different parts of their brain as distinct voices. “According to Jaynes, ancient people in the bicameral state would experience the world in a manner that has similarities to that of a modern-day schizophrenic. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or ‘god’ giving admonitory advice or commands, and obey these voices without question; one would not be at all conscious of one’s own thought processes per se.” It is possible that 21st century man is hearing voices once again in that part of thinking or remembering that has been delegated to the computer.

My guess is that higher education in the near future must seamlessly integrate the classroom channel with the “voice of the gods” that a generation of people has learned to hear from their laptops. As computing devices become ever more powerful, able to project 3D images into rooms, respond to their location and environment and serve as the key networking tool, they will become increasingly difficult to exclude. Jaynes says that the rise of language and writing forced the voices of the gods to merge into our “own” stream of consciousness.

Self-awareness, or consciousness, was the culturally evolved solution to this problem. This necessity of communicating commonly observed phenomena among individuals who shared no common language or cultural upbringing encouraged those communities to become self-aware to survive in a new environment. Thus consciousness, like bicamerality, emerged as a neurological adaptation to social complexity in a changing world.

Now the gods are back. And while academics may have temporary success at stilling their voices my prediction is that the contest between professor and laptop will be won by both.

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