Slow-thinking our way to fastening connections
Kirby Neumann-Rea/News-Register##Kevin Curry, right, speaks after the Pubs and Profs events with Bryce Madison, Linfield 2010, and Jennifer Rauch, professor and chair, journalism and media studies at Linfield University. Madison is a writer-producer with Fox12 TV in Portland.
My college days seem close at hand, living in McMinnville.
Slow-thinking, I recently had the chance to sit in on a lecture by a Linfield University professor for the first time in 43 years.
This was not like the ones I remember from 1980. It featured beer and pizza.
But like those of my Linfield days, it provided plenty of food for thought.
Communications Professor Dr. Kevin Curry spoke on technology and its effect on our brains. His talk was featured as December’s “Pubs and Profs” feature at the Lucky Labrador Beer Hall in Portland, part of an ongoing series hosted by the Linfield Alumni Office.
Curry is a Linfield grad who returned to work at the school in video technology. He went on to earn his doctorate and become a professor there.
“As we talk through changes in technology, think about how new technology has changed the structure of our brains,” Curry said. “It’s always faster, farther, and more frequent.”
He recounted how he tells his digital-age students that he learned audio editing skills handling reel-to-reel tape. “I tell them that story as I am about to teach them the same thing on a computer, that the concepts are the same, just the technology keeps on changing,” he said.
In 1989, he took that class from the late Dr. Craig Singletary, who headed the speech department for years and also served as a professor of mine. I last saw Craig about 2016 at Homecoming.
He taught me a great deal, as did professor Lauren Kessler in communications, the late Levi Carlile in economics, and John Daly and Eliot Tauscher in political science. In those days, we wrote our student newspaper stories on manual typewriters, and researched our papers in magazines and books.
In the 1970s, the library featured the ubiquitous Readers’ Guide to Periodicals, consisting of green-cover quarterly books listing magazine article by topic. That was our “internet.”
“Regardless of who you are, you engage daily with media whether you want to or not, especially these days, and it affects all personally,” Curry said at the pub doings, as he workshopped some research on mobile phones, the Internet, and other avenues of instantaneous stimuli.
Before written language, he noted, “A lot of things were set to music so we could remember them,” as the brain had to remember things in order to pass them along. With the vast capability of online databases, modern humans have become “searchers and skimmers,” evolving a long way from their original “hunters and gatherers” role.
From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, much has changed.
Curry began by relating how for millennia human communication was limited to oral recording of events, prior to written language and images.
Sumerian cuneiform from 3,000 BCE was followed by early Egyptian and Greek alphabets on tablets in the first millennium BC, through scrolls and codex, technologies still reserved for the elite.
Though anyone can create a blog today, he said, at the time, “Common people were still not engaged in the process of writing.”
Chinese block printing in 600 CE was followed by Korean moveable copper alloy type and the first Gutenberg press in 1400. Thus, Curry pointed out, “For the first time, information can travel.”
The prof went beyond written language to other realms of communication, citing the rise of photography in the 19th century, broadcasting in the early 20th, and the first commercial radio in 1910, on through the rise of all-powerful TikTok and the dizzying array of new online sharing platforms, new ones that are making Instagram and Snapchat seem obsolete.
Curry’s underlying focus is not only on brain changes from advancing technology, but its transformation of human society, based on the fact, “You no longer needed to be in the same room to communicate. With the advent of sound recording in 1878, you could hear someone who’s not in the same room.”
To this day, Curry keeps a pair of 19th century phonographs on a shelf in his office, as a reminder of how far communications have come. Yet he considers phonographs “an example of technology we still have a connection to today.”
He described how communications need to be shorter and shorter, evidenced by TikTok — where anything over a minute is considered too long.
He did not mention the 280-character limit on Twitter. It’s low-hanging fruit, I suppose, and the current Twitter threshold is actually double the old 140-character limit
Things do shift directions, though, Curry noted, citing the comebacks made by cassettes and vinyl in the past few years,
He also cited another fascinating, if painful, reality: “We don’t have to rely on the newspaper to publish something we want published. We can publish our thoughts.”
“We’re getting more content. You can look things up. Now we can search things and find them faster, the answers at our fingertips.”
Anymore, “I don’t have to remember the information,” Curry observed. “I just have to remember where it’s at.”
Once we remember it, though, how do we hold on to it?
“We have two types of memory: working and long-term,” Curry said. “Working memory is fast-thinking, we get ideas in our head, make a decision and move on. Things we are conscious in the moment, go on our mental scratch pads, but as we reach cognitive load, it is harder to store and make connections, too many things on our scratch pads, and we’re not able to do the work to connect to other things.”
He cited author Nicholas Carr’s observation that in the cyber-based information universe, “It is harder to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, signal from noise, and we become mindless consumers of data.”
Curry asked, “What are changes in media today — faster and more frequent — doing to our brains? The design of modern technology is made for fast thought and is not designed to slow thinking.”
Studies show hypertext to be part of the problem, he said. These underlying links to other facts or areas of information do not allow the brain to focus.
“Studies show that without the presence of hypertexts, people absorb information better. Hypertext is cool. I put it in my syllabuses all the time, but they are distracting and don’t allow us to concentrate.”
There are few, if any, hyptertexts in books, and a return to books — due to the way they foster slow-thinking — was Curry’s parting message.
“Books allow us to read more deeply and concentrate more specifically on information and that’s going to change how our brains work as well,” he said.
“Now our brains are free to make connections between things and free to be creative in different ways because we’re thinking about things in different ways, and it changes us to where we have deep thought. It changes the way we think.”