Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II

My previous post on The Myths of the Digital Generation looked at how many of the characteristics ascribed to "digital natives" were exaggerated to the point of becoming myth. What is more founded in research (although I'm sure it has its share of controversy) is the native multitasking ability of women. Helen Fisher, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, researches "the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage and gender differences in the brain and behavior." From Chapter 1 (NY Times, free registration required) of her book The First Sex, here are some excerpts on what she calls women's "web thinking" and men's "step thinking":

  • As a general rule, men tend to focus on one thing at a time—a male trait I first noticed in my twenties. At the time I had a boyfriend who liked to watch the news on television, listen to rock music on the stereo, and read a book—presumably all at once. In reality, he just switched channels in his head. When he was imbibing from one modality, he tuned the others out. Not I. The flashing of the TV screen, the throbbing music, the printed words: all of these stimuli swamped my mind.
  • Janet Scott Batchler has described this gender difference succinctly. She writes feature films with her husband and partner, Lee Batchler. She says of her spouse, "He does one thing at a time. Does it well. Finishes it and moves on. He's very direct in his thought processes and in his actions. And he deals with people in that same focused way, meaning exactly what he says, with no hidden agenda. I'm the one who can juggle a hundred balls at once, and can realize that other people may be doing the same thing, professionally or emotionally."
  • Web thinking versus step thinking; an emphasis on the whole versus a focus on the parts; multitasking versus doing one thing at a time: scientists are far from understanding, even properly defining, these subtle differences between women and men.
  • As women around the world do multiple tasks simultaneously, they are mentally assessing and assimilating an abundance of data— engaging in web thinking.
  • Women are "process-oriented." They are "gathering." They want to explore the multiple interactions, the multidirectional paths, all of the permutations of the puzzle.
  • Psychologists argue that contemporary women learn to do and think several things simultaneously. Just watch a working mother in the morning, dressing children, packing lunches, feeding goldfish, pouring cereal, and arranging day care on the phone—all at once.
  • I suspect that women's talent for contextual thinking—and the related skill of multitasking—evolved in deep history. Thousands of generations of performing mental and physical acrobatics as they raised helpless infants built these outstanding capacities into the architecture of the female brain.

Note that ahough Fisher's boyfriend seemed to be multitasking, he wasn't.

Note also that many of the characteristics attributed to digital natives by Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants are also attributed to women by Fisher. One difference is that while digital natives acquire their multitasking skills through normal learning processes, according to Fisher, about 50 percent of women have it hardwired into their brain. Obviously, although Prensky claimed that digital natives' multitasking and other skills "are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants," they are not foreign to women.

Of course, Fisher's theories are (contested) interpretations of data, but to me they adhere more closely to the evidence. Prensky's interpretations are speculative extrapolations from research findings that the brain continues to adapt and is malleable, and that people think differently according to their experiences. In Part II of Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (pdf), he writes,

So, today’s neurobiologists and social psychologists agree that brains can and do change with new input.

And elsewhere:

While these individual cognitive skills may not be new, the particular combination and intensity is. We now have a new generation with a very different blend of cognitive skills than its predecessors—the Digital Natives.

From very general concepts of plasticity and malleability, Prensky jumps to a very specific conclusion of "very different" cognitive processing . And elsewhere:

But these differences, most observers agree, are less a matter of kind than a difference of degree.

This last statement is key. First, if it's more a matter of degree, then considerable more evidence is needed before claiming that it is "a very different blend." Second, what is the specific combination and what is the difference in degree? As David E. Meyer, Director of the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, said with respect to Net Gen's multitasking ability, "it's a myth" (see The Myths of the Digital Generation). So, the degree doesn't seem that large.

And the particular combination doesn't seem all that new, either: For millenia, according to Fisher, women have been natural, or native, multi-taskers. (Perhaps Meyer will disagree with Fisher.)

As stated in the previous post, that each generation differs from the preceding ones is common sense. But that the differences reach mythical levels, well, let's have a little more evidence.

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation