Eric Carle and iPad Babies

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(Craig Campbell)– Last Friday, my visiting parents and I drove to Hampshire College to take a look at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. For a 10-minute bus ride and $6 admissions fee, I recommend the museum for anyone who has ever read a picture book – that is, everyone.

The gallery displayed original drafts of illustrations from a variety of classic children’s literature, including a special exhibit on Charlotte’s Web, anniversary illustrations by Maurice Sendak, and Carle’s own tissue paper collages that make up the striking images in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. As I browsed the collection, I perceived a distinct sense of familiarity with many of the images; I had evidently read the stories at some point in childhood. Although I couldn’t put a finger on the narrative associated with any of the pictures, I felt, on a visceral level, what I had felt some 15 years ago when experiencing them for the first time. The Night Kitchen was exhilarating and fantastically escapist; Sylvester and the Magic Pebble elicited the comfort of familial affection; the Frog and Toad series aroused a feeling of giddy platonic appreciation.

Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel

In my ‘Senses in Motion’ research seminar, a recurring point of discussion has been the effect of sensory stimuli in digital media. One of my classmates showed us the “iPad baby,” a picture (above) of an infant reading a Dr. Seuss book on the Apple device. We agreed that we should be wary of the increasing prevalence of digital culture in the lives of children and its effect on the developing brain; however, we unanimously voiced this concern while all looking at the picture on our own individual iPad screens.

One of the issues with “online learning” is the ever-growing abundance of hyperlinks on webpages. Sites are encouraged, in fact, to fill their text with external links as it raises their search engine indices. However, the convention of linking diverse sources disrupts the temporal linearity of any textual thought. Each link serves as its own digression to another topic, and so the wholeness of an otherwise cogent text becomes fundamentally fragmented. Replete with blue underlined phrases, Wikipedia is so successful because of its relatively concise presentation of a general topic, with plenty of opportunities (links) for tangential discovery. However, research confirms that, although web-based learning increases students’ ability to “multitask,” it diminishes their capacity to think abstractly and creatively.

So why is “multitasking” considered a desirable, employable skill? Studies indicate that media multitasking results in sloppier performance in each simultaneously executed activity. This is not surprising: consider the dual lines of mental processing necessary to drive a car and use a cell phone at the same time.

The more we replace physical media with constantly changing digital forms, the more efficient we become at processing multiple sources of data at once; we train our eyes to hurriedly follow the changing images in front of us. Try this experiment: open a new tab in this browser and look at your browsing history for the past week. How many sites listed do you even remember visiting? Are you noticing just how many different Facebook links show up stacked on top of one another? Check the time stamps; how many different pages did you navigate through in any one minute?

“Multi-tasking,” as we understand it, comes from the term “computer multi-tasking.” As technology charges fearlessly and endlessly onward, the dread of The Singularity – the moment when robots become self-aware – continues to foment in the collective consciousness. But the converse is rarely considered; in the age of record numbers of ADHD diagnoses, shouldn’t we be worried about what happens when we train our minds, and our kid’s minds, to model the multitasking of computers, robots, and machines?

Children’s literature is designed to build the foundation of “abstract thinking” in young people. Simple picture books teach a basic understanding of right and wrong, of the superlative value of family and friendship, and the notion that being “lost” is the worst conflict one could ever face. Besides learning how to apprehend language, reading picture books facilitates parent-child bonding, develops fine motor skills (turning thin pages) in readers, and encourages fastidious attention. Remember how often you wanted to read the same story, over and over again, despite the fact that you knew each word by heart?

If the generation of iBabies were to enter the Eric Carle Museum 20 years from now, would their brains be capable of the visceral childhood associations that I had? Or would the barrage of unrelated images juxtaposed throughout their childhood lives hinder their sense of what the messages of those stories even were?

Only in picture books is the medium more important than the narrative, and a book in hand is by no means the same as a book on screen.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle