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Digital Thinking, Creative Thinking & Tiger Mums


Welcome to this article. I’m glad you’re here. These articles are about sustainability, philosophy, psychology, history, religion, evolution, etc. You can also subscribe here for other content.


Note: this video covers the same topic.


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In our technologically advancing society, where algorithms are getting sharper, artificial intelligence smarter, and computers faster … do you think that we’re making computers in our image?


Are computers becoming more human?


Or, do you think it’s the opposite, that humans are becoming more like computers and rewarding more computer-like behaviour?


(I heard this question asked by Harvard professor Sean Kelly at the end of this podcast.)


I believe that we are becoming more like computers, and rewarding computer-like behaviour such as speed, analytic processing, and maximum efficiency.


But if that’s true, what about the impact of digital thinking on children’s brain development and their ways of attending to the world?


It’s a known fact that 90% of a child’s brain develops before the age of five

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Let’s contrast digital thinking and creative thinking, also referred to as:

  • Linear and convergent vs divergent thinking,

  • Serial, sequential processing (A>>B>>C) vs creativity and intuition,

  • Repetitive, close-ended tasks vs unfolding, emerging, open- ended tasks,

  • Rule-based, analytical thinking vs creative problem solving,

  • Fragmented, piecemeal, decontextualized vs holistic, Gestalt, contextualized,

  • Analytical vs insightful,

  • Programmable vs unprogrammable,

  • Left brain vs right brain


(Drawing on the work of Iain McGilchrist, we could also call these ‘modes of being’, or ‘ways of attending’.)


Digital thinking is “thinking/processing/operating like computers” – rule-based, fragmentary, atomized, serial and sequential, analytical, narrow-focused formulaic processing that can be algorithmized, programmed, and sufficiently optimized for maximum efficiency because it follows pre-destined, step-by-step paths.


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Here’s another way of contrasting both “modes,” digital and creative:


Imagine the children at an early childhood centre, school, or home playing with a jigsaw puzzle.


What are they doing?


They’re reconstructing an image that is already given (pictured on the box). The more they practice, the faster, and more efficient they become.


This may make them believe that they’re creating an image..


And, that the faster and more efficient they get, the more creative they get.


But are they?


Now, imagine the same children drawing.


What are they doing?


They’re “drawing from the depths of their souls” (Henri Bergson’s phrase and example).


Both activities, jigsaw puzzle, and drawing lead to the seemingly same outcome – a large image; yet both activities are polar opposites of what’s really going on.


Putting a jigsaw puzzle together can be computerized and automated because the result is already given, and, therefore, 956 sequences, and steps to follow, can be programmed and done by a machine. It’s a matter of speed and efficiency, both of which can be optimized for the best performance.


But “drawing from the depths of one’s soul”?


No way.


Now, which skills do you think children will need twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now? Those that rely on creativity, or those that rely on digital thinking, step-by-step formulaic processing that can be optimized for maximum efficiency?


Also, which activities do you think will be automated in our technological age - those like drawing, or those like jigsaw puzzles?


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We hear about incredibly competitive (no doubt) and high-achieving children, parents, schools, and jobs in Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, and how technologically advanced, especially in STEM fields, these societies are. Tiger parenting, a form of strict, drone-like parenting where ‘Tiger mums’ hover around their children ensuring maximum academic achievement, and 6am-10pm performance, is a known phenomenon.


We hear about the importance of being competitive, and that STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), are the “way of the future.” In 2020, the Australian government overhauled university funding, incentivising students towards “job-ready” fields, such as STEM, and discouraging students from humanities courses (by giving such courses less funding).


At first glance, this looks like a rational, logical, and even smart decision.


But it’s that kind of short-term, “what-works-now / what-are-the-current-trends” mentality that lacks a long-term, bigger-picture perspective.


STEM fields are of course important, but more important than other fields such as humanities?


Where is that logic coming from?


Partly from a belief that you always need to be competitive, and that you must outcompete someone else to “win,” as though life was a soccer match. This could have its roots all the way in Darwinian emphasis on the survival of the fittest, and our fear of being left behind. There are millions of people better at STEM than us, Tiger mum drones circulating, so we too must get better at STEM to “keep up,” right?


Why is this logic wrong?


Here’s why I believe politicians and many others push the STEM, competitiveness, so-called job readiness, and efficiency mantra:

If we go back to our jigsaw puzzle example, Bergson explains (in his ‘Creative Evolution’) that when a child assembles a puzzle, time becomes stretchable and can be shortened to a minimum – theoretically, to zero – because the time it gets to assemble the puzzle image from thousand pieces shortens in proportion to the speed and efficiency of the puzzle assembler. What takes three hours for the first time will take two hours the fifth time, one hour the tenth, and 20 minutes the fifteenth time. If the child keeps practicing ten hours per day for two weeks, s/he’ll eventually manage to put it together in ten minutes, a six-fold efficiency increase.


Now, when you focus on such tasks where this occurs (where time “shrinks” the more efficient and faster you get), I can understand the excitement of politicians, entrepreneurs, start-ups, programmers, and others involved in operations where such speed and efficiency are needed.


But such puzzle assembly-like activities:


a) can be performed by machines much faster and more accurately than humans anyway now and in the future, and

b) have nothing to do with creativity. They do the opposite – dehumanizing them and putting them in the category where they try to meet the expectations put on people by technology. As Harvard professor Sean Kelly put it - this issue is about the ways in which the human world is being formed by technology’s expectations of us. As in, being the fastest, most efficient puzzle piece assembler, and naively believing that you are creative. You are not. You are only an efficient robot, can’t win that race, and it’s foolish to believe that you’re more advanced, or “more competitive,’ even if we assume that being ‘competitive’ is a valuable attribute.


‘Competitive,’ the way I see it being served to people, usually means ‘fastest,’ ‘most efficient,’ and ‘sufficiently optimized/optimizable.’ In other words, like a computer.


Therefore, a question arises:


If our society – instead of rewarding creative thinking – rewards more digital thinking and formulaic activities such as scoring, computing, tabulating, assembling, comparing, sorting, and assigning values – things that rely on programmable sets of rules…


Shouldn’t it be the opposite?


Programmable activities and tasks WILL be programmed, and automated; therefore, shouldn’t we, in schools, workplaces, and training sessions for children and adults focus more on things that promote and stimulate creativity … instead of trying to be like, or even foolishly compete with, computers?


Both jigsaw puzzle boxes and canvases with colours deserve their space.


But I’d put the puzzle in the bottom drawer.



Thanks for reading.


Jan



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P.S. The opportunities for creative thinking are endless when it comes to sustainability and greening up your service, school, or home.

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