David E. Meyer, PhD
Professor of Psychology, Cognition and Perception Program, Department of Psychology;
Director of Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, University of Michigan
Hi, guys. It’s really hard to believe that 48 hours have passed since we first came together. Enormous amount of stuff has happened since then, and to summarize it all would be basically impossible, especially if you’re jet lagged like me or some of the other people in the audience, but I’m going to say a little bit about my overall impression and the significance of it, because I’ve been given the task of reintroducing Pam Hurst-Della Pietra for her closing remarks, and I do think those need to be set in a little bit of a context, and in order to do that, I’m actually going to pick up with some of the points that were made a few minutes ago by Justine Cassell. So, there’s an issue floating around throughout this conference that in my way of thinking maybe is the most critical of all, because depending on which side of this issue you come down on, you will proceed in one way, or you will proceed in another.
And one way of characterizing exactly what the issue is can be understood with respect to the title of a fairly recent, very prominent book that got published in economics and finance called This Time It’s Different. And that book was published in 2011 by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff who are extremely prominent economists. They were actually arguing that the financial crash of 2008 and the events which preceded it really aren’t all that different from a number of economic crashes that happened in the past. But, in any case, regardless of what their argument was, the issue remains whether or not with respect to digital media what we have now is a time that’s truly qualitatively different from how it was in the past.
And in order to understand what we should think in terms of all of that, we really have to go back several centuries in order to look at what the advances of technology have been and what kinds of comments or reactionary responses there have been when those emerged, and you can go back as far as you want to stone tablets, I suppose. I decided I’d pick up with the Gutenberg press, which introduced the mass production of printed books. Of course, this was a good thing, but there were some reactions to that. Some people started complaining about the risk of that leading to huge deforestation on the planet, and we now know maybe we’re going to have deforestation, but it’s not because of the Gutenberg press.
We’ve also had, even before then, smoke signals as a mode of communication, which led people to worry about pollution. There were drums for signaling, which led people to worry about rock and roll, telegraphs where people started complaining about poles out in the country polluting the landscape, the telephone, which had a whole bunch of bad stuff said about it, radio, of course television, and moving on to the personal computer. In each of these cases, concerns were raised. Comments were made like the medium is the message. In any case, right now what we’re really talking about is that gadget there, and I’m just using this as an example of what really matters.
We need to think about exactly what is that gadget, and how does it compare with the ones I’ve mentioned previously. Now there are big differences between this gadget here, Apple watches that are on some people’s wrists and so on and so forth. The first thing you need to understand about this device here is it’s a miniature, highly portable, universal Turing machine, or at least it’s a quas
Furthermore, it’s not just a portable, universal Turing machine; it’s also a universal communication channel, which was pointed out by somebody fairly recently. I can essentially communicate just like I use my mouth, my eyes, my gestures with anybody in the world through the virtual equivalent of those channels over that device right there, which greatly augments its utility beyond just being a universal Turing machine. It’s actually sort of like a very complicated neuron, not just a simple on/off neuron, but a neuron that has all of the power of a universal Turing machine being connected with enormous number of other complicated neurons that also have the power of a universal Turing machine.
And, as a result, we have created a universal entertainment center, and, in effect, what amounts to a universal brain. The capabilities associated with these mechanisms are just astounding compared to any other previous communication device. So, what this all means to me is the answer to the question of is this time different is obvious; the answer has got to be yes, because nobody has been walking around with such a combination of computing power and communication power as we have had in the past. Somebody has got to be thinking about this. You can be guaranteed that Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and God knows who else in Congress aren’t. That means then somebody in the private sphere has to do that. Who’s that going to be? Well, it turns out who that’s going to be at least in part is Pam Hurst-Della Pietra.
She has brought together here for the very first time such a wide collection of individuals relevant to these matters as I could possibly imagine. Now maybe I’m wrong, because I don’t travel in these communities, and, therefore, maybe I’ve missed out on something, and possibly, there have been events like this in the past, but if there have been, they’re few and far between, and certainly weren’t highly emphasized in the public news media before, because if they had been, I would have known about them. Now I found out about Pam’s imagination, vision, and so forth about three years ago when her administrative assistant emailed me and said Pam wanted me to come to Kalamazoo, Michigan to meet with her, watch her daughter perform in Les Mis, and have a tête-à-tête about the idea she was hoping to advance.
Turned out, there was ice on the road that day. It was like 20 degrees below zero, and she let me off the hook, so we Skyped instead. And basically, the rest is history in the sense that I’ve gradually watched starting from literally scratch, zilch, no institute, no conference, no money, no nothing, just an idea in Pam’s head that this stuff was going to come about. And, subsequently, I have remained—and I mentioned this at the opening of the conference—utterly skeptical about whether anything was going to happen, because it just seemed to me there was no way one single individual could pull it off, and I know enough about organizing conferences that it’s not easy even if you’re dealing
with a known cast of characters, an already existing procedure for how to make the meeting happen, and so forth, and none of that was present in this case. Nevertheless, after three years, we now have the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.
We have a number of other initiatives underway, and, furthermore, we have this conference, which as it turns out, is hugely successful in my opinion. I don’t know what you think, but as an outsider, just looking at all of this, and especially taking into account where it started from three years ago, it’s just mindboggling. I would have never imagined. I would have never bet a lot of money it would come off, but it did, and so then I look at this and I say what is this like. We do need a little bit of comic relief, and it’s not really a comedy though. I think this amounts for digital media and child development, the equivalent of Woodstock, and, furthermore, I think that we need to get appropriately enlivened before we proceed.
So, it turns out that Pam has an older sister who actually was at Woodstock, and so for the next couple of minutes just to get us in the right mood for Pam’s final remarks, I’d let you enjoy just momentarily to participate in Pam’s older sister’s performance at Woodstock. [Music plays]. Louder. Louder. Keep in mind, this is Pam’s older sister. [Music plays].
And without further ado, I give you Pam Hurst-Della Pietra.
Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, DO
Founder and President, Children and Screens: The Institute of Digital Media and Child Development;
Clinical Assistant Professor in Health Care Policy and Management, School of Health Technology and
Management, Stony Brook University
Well, I think this is going to be really boring compared to that. Thank you so much, David for that introduction. When I learned that I’d be today’s final speaker, I reached out to a friend for some advice. She said poetry is for openings, brevity is for closings. Briefly then, I want to describe what I think we’ve accomplished together here, and invite you to consider some compelling opportunities ahead. First, we convened an astonishing assortment of experts this week: top researchers, clinicians and practitioners from neuroscience, cognitive science, pediatric medicine, psychology, sociology, economics, journalism, public health and digital media producers. By gathering under the banner of this conference, you signified your desire to reach beyond disciplinary boundaries and toward intellectual independence and comprehensive widely influential discovery, and it was a good primer for those who are brand new.
Second, we created opportunities for interactions so varied, yet so consistently focused on raising and addressing big questions and understanding the whole child, that paradigm shifting insights became inevitable. Abundant chances to listen, to speak, to question and challenge and explore with people who look at the same things as you do, but through different lenses, seem likely to change at least a few minds about more than a few things. New lines of inquiry were born here this week, so too were new partnerships. Shared vocabularies were invented with which to define, manage, and disseminate whatever those collaborations may produce. Third, we positioned those of you who will be here tomorrow for a productive day three. Breakout sessions will allow you to organize, synthesize, and refine ideas that have percolated through this group so far, and translate them into plans of action. Among other things, you’ll have the opportunity to create an agenda for future research, including central questions, projected timelines and milestones and the identification of key interdependencies, public facing guidelines on specific topics targeted at specific stages of child development and specific audiences and field testing methodologies to begin the process of validating the recommendations that come out of this conference.
We’ve already begun this work. New questions asked, new theories shared, new ways of combining tools and perspectives, new backing and of course confirmation that what you do matters, and your openness to thinking beyond traditional boundaries puts you in excellent company. Beyond tomorrow, it’s reasonable to ask what will all these formal talks, and panel discussions, and shared meals, and lobby chats, and scribbled notes on well-thumbed whitepapers add up to. Well, that depends on you, but here are my hopes: facilitating collaborations among different kinds of experts, looking at different aspects of child health and development will reveal insights beyond the reach of any single discipline. It also will ignite the imagination and ambition of funders and capture the indispensable attention of lawmakers and clinicians. The intellectual rigor associated with each academic discipline represented here will be just as present in your interdisciplinary efforts and multi-disciplinary teams.
Established and new funders will expect and appreciate that; so too will many other constituencies that look to scholarly research for guidance. In this way, those responsible for formulating new policies and standards will feel confident in their reliance on your future discoveries. Finally, I noticed that academics among us have now spent a considerable time not only with each other but also with people that they had never met before. How real is all this talk of new modes of research and ways of combining complimentary sets of skills and experience? I urge you to put the philanthropic community to the test. Assemble a team that resembles what I’ve described, prepare a succinct description of what team you can accomplish together, and that its individual researchers can’t do alone.
Let me know if we can share your emails. Send it to me, tell me what it will cost, and ask me to share it with the grant makers with whom I interact. Let’s work together to figure out what questions most urgently need asking, together all the tools needed to ask them, and to produce answers that will allow our children and others to live long, productive, real lives. Let me end our time together with thanks to the collaborators who made this extraordinary event possible, to my co-hosts David Meyer and Jane Brown, to the National Academy of Sciences, and especially the Committee for Scientific Programs, and the amazing Susan Marty, to Vicky Rideout for her contributions long before day one, to Melina Uncapher for spearheading day three, and for her enormous help, and to my staff, June, Julie and Melli, to Marsha and Henry Laufer, and to the Rauch Foundation for their generous leadership, and to my family for making this event necessary and worthwhile.
To all of them, thank you. And thanks to everyone in this audience. We know you’re busy. We know you’re doing work that may change our lives, and that you’re sometimes doing it without adequate resources or encouragement. Let us be your resources. Let us be your cheerleaders. Use every business card you’ve received, every vCard you’ve downloaded, respond to each email and text message that bears the subject line Following Up on the Conference. Join each other’s groups, converge, convene, and do great things. We are adjourned.