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October 24, 2014

The Butterfly Defect: Technology and the Wandering Mind

by Peter Skillen
Dwight Sipler-Flickr

Dwight Sipler-Flickr

Gavriel Salomon wrote the following piece in 1998 – several years after the World Wide Web was launched but years before the recent distractibility of the Internet – with Twitter, Facebook, and many other social media attention-getters!

It is clear that technology shapes our behaviour in ways we may, or may not, understand. The Butterfly Defect is worth considering if you are responsible for students.

This is not just about attention issues but rather speaks about habits of mind.

These technologies, like other things in our environment, provide us with models with which to think – not always knowingly and not always beneficially.

This section is from an essay called “Novel Constructivist Learning Environments and Novel Technologies: Some Issues to Be Concerned With”.

“The Butterfly Defect

This raises yet other questions. Hypermedia programs of the kind widely touted and widely used in education are non-linear, perhaps the way cognitive webs of meaning are. However, the connections they display, and particularly the ones students build into them, are anything but logical. In fact, such programs are deliberately based on casual associations and on visual fascination, luring the user to wander from one item to another which happens to be associated with it. In fact, this is not just a private case of hypermedia and multimedia; it is the defining attribute of the hottest thing in town: The Internet.

There is nothing wrong with bouncing around, as hypermedia and the Internet invite one to do, except that this is typical of bottom-up, unguided exploratory behavior, as contrasted with the developmentally more advanced search behavior which is top-down, metacognitively guided and goal directed (Wright & Vliestra, 1975). Search, unlike exploration, is neither guided by the lure of shiny buttons, nor does the finding of simple associations satisfy it. If students can emulate the organization of information in hypermedia for the organization of knowledge in their minds, matching their maps of meaning to those they construct on the computer, would they not organize it in the same associationistic way hypermedia are organized?

The questions thus concern two interrelated developments. One development concerns the structure of students’ webs of meaning. Could students’ cognitive webs of meaning come to reflect hypermedia characteristics, consisting of flimsy associationistic connections? The second development concerns the mental activity associated with those webs: Would students come to acquire a tendency to mentally hop around their own cognitive webs in a hypermedia-like manner?

These possibilities can be called The Butterfly Defect: Coming to think or to prefer the style of thinking in a hypermedia mode—”touch, but don’t touch, and just move on to make something out of it”. A teacher recently interviewed by Oppenheimer for a biting article about educational computing in The Atlantic Monthly (1997), proudly announced that his students have come to think in a multimedia manner. If he is right, then the danger of a Butterfly Defect may be more imminent than we think.”

 

  • Are we doing our kids a disservice if we are not teaching them about the effects of technologies on how they are learning and, in fact, behaving?
  • Is the ‘butterfly defect’ yet another unanticipated effect of new technologies – a ‘second-order’ or drip effect’ as Salomon would say?
  • Is this dealt with significantly in the myriad ‘media literacy’ documents produced?

Gavriel, I miss you being part of this community. I miss your voice.

I encourage you to read the whole article: Novel Constructivist Learning Environments and Novel Technologies: Some Issues to Be Concerned With. It is available for purchase here.

Disclaimer: I really believe that butterflies are effective in their mission, otherwise they would not survive. 🙂 Such is the nature of metaphor!

(This paper is based on the author’s Keynote Address presented at the EARLI Meeting, Athens, August 1997)

Gavriel Salomon, Haifa University, Israel 1998

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