howard_gardner's picture
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author, A Synthesizing Mind

The Internet has changed my life greatly, but not in a way that I could have anticipated, nor in the way that the question implies. Put succinctly, just as if a newly discovered preliterate tribe had challenged my beliefs about human language and human culture, the Internet has altered my views of human development and human potential.

Several years ago, I had a chance conversation with Jonathan Fanton, then President of the MacArthur Foundation. He mentioned that the Foundation was sponsoring a major study, to the tune of 50 million dollars, of how young people are being changed by the new digital media, such as the Internet. At the time, as part of our GoodWork research Project, I was involved in studies of ethics and focusing particularly on the ethical orientation of young people. And so I asked Pres. Fanton "Are you looking at the ways in which the ethics of youth may be affected?" He told me that the Foundation had not thought about this issue. After several conversations and a grant application, our GoodPlay project, a social science study of ethics in the digital media, was launched.

Even though I myself am a digital immigrant—I sometimes refer to myself as a digital paleolith—I now spend many hours a week thinking about the ways in which nearly all of us—young and old—are affected by being on line, networked, surfing, or posting for so much of the day. I've become convinced that the "digital revolution'' might be as epochmaking as the invention of writing or, certainly, the invention of printing or of broadcast. While I agree with those who caution that it is premature to detail what the effects might be, it is not too early to begin to think, observe, reflect, conduct pivotal observations and experiments. Indeed, I wish that social scientists, and/or other observers had been around, when earlier new media of communication had debuted.

Asked for my current thinking, I would make the following points. The lives and minds of young people are far more fragmented than at earlier times. This mutipliicity of connections, networks, avatars, messages, may not bother them but certainly makes for identities that are more fluid and less stable. Times for reflection, introspection, solitude, are scarce. Longstanding views of privacy and ownership/authorship are being rapidly undermined. Probably most dramatically, what it has meant for millennia to belong to a community is being totally renegotiated as a result of instant 24-7 access to anyone who is connected to the Internet. How this will affect intimacy, imagination, democracy, social action, citizenship, and other staples of human kind is up for grabs.

For older persons (even older than I am), the digital world is mysterious. For those of us who are middle aged or beyond, we continue to live in two worlds—the pre-digital and the digital—and we may either be nostalgic for the days without blackberries or relieved that we no longer have to trudge off to the library. But all persons who want to understand their children or their grandchildren must make the effort to "go native,"and at such times, we digital immigrants or digital paleoliths can feel as fragmented, as uncertain about privacy, as pulled by membership in diverse, and perhaps incommensurate communities, as any 15 year old.