Among my recent reading, I found this, from Jeffrey Kluger’s book Simplexity:

Electronic devices … have gone mad. It’s not just your TV or your camera or your twenty-seven-button cell phone with its twenty-one different screen menus and its 124-page instruction manual… .

The act of buying nearly any electronic product has gone from the straightforward plug-and-play experience it used to be to a laborious, joy-killing exercise.1 

Our electronic gadgets tend to become less transparent and more difficult to use as they evolve. Posting the above on Phys-L, an internet forum for physics teachers, I asked what effect such gadgets will have on the minds of our youngsters. Their push-button experience is very different from their parents’ experience. Responding, one teacher wrote: “There are no radios … no grandfather clocks … no cars which anyone can take into their garage and work on. These things that we used to find fun and intriguing to put together and repair do not exist any longer in the world where everything is run by electronics and chips.”

The disappearance of transparent gadgets such as radios and clocks is certainly a concern for physics teachers because we have come to see them as powerful reinforcers of curiosity and motivators for learning. The nontransparent smartphones, iPads, and similar gadgets don’t promote curiosity and motivate learning, at least not in the ways and to the extent that more transparent tools have. If a decline in students’ learning is observed, one must ask how much of it is due to the proliferation of touch-screen technology. One thing is obvious: Learning about how a toy truck works from an iPad or TV screen is quite different from taking apart a toy truck and putting it back together.

A decline in learning might also be due to other factors. But the proliferation of black-box technologies is likely to be one of them. Some consequences of using new technology might be very hard to repair if they are discovered too late. That is the great value of research in this area—and the sooner the better. Some teachers from the Phys-L forum have said they suspect that undesirable consequences might be due to an excess of passive learning.

Equally important are unknown effects that touch-screen toys have on toddlers, the middle school and high school students of tomorrow. Hanna Rosin, the author of an article entitled “The Touch-Screen Generation,”2 reports that toddlers are spending more and more time watching what happens on the screens of iPads. She emphasizes that very little is known about cognitive effects of touch-screen technology on toddlers and about whether the overall effect will be positive or negative.

Any tool we are using without understanding—for example, a sophisticated commercial instrument or a new theory—can be said to be a nontransparent black box. We learn how to achieve certain results from it but not how the tool itself functions. Black boxes are frequently used as pedagogical constructs, they are used in scientific research, and they help us to be more effective, to benefit from the work and skills of others. But they also carry potential harm.

Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)
New York
), p.