A blog post in the U.S. Chronicle of Higher Education quickly rounds up a rash of apparently polemical books condemning a new “Twitter generation” of “dumb” young people (and, by implication, undergraduates). Others with equally shiny new books to sell claim the brains of students have been fundamentally re-wired by ‘growing up digital’, and the new breed of uber-student thus requires totally new forms of teaching by a new breed of teachers.

I’m suspicious of either extreme, and strongly doubt the existence of either a wholly slack-brained or a silicon-brained “Twitter generation”. I can’t help thinking that both these notions can serve as a handy scapegoat — able to neatly divert the blame for lowering standards in education from swivel-eyed socialist educational theorists and poor quality managers, to a tale in which impressionable students are seduced en masse by libertine online companies.

I suspect that we’re all the Google generation — in that that our superficial large-volume information-handling skills (i.e., ‘skimming’) have increased somewhat across the board (at least among those who are literate and took an interest in their education), but that almost no-one (young or old) is really excellent at searching or finding online, or at critically selecting and weaving what they find into something new.

One of the more interesting (but rarely discussed) aspects of this strong but patchy and often ramshackle shift from books / paper journals to digital learning and research, is the change in how serendipity (finding something useful that you’re not looking for) and misunderstanding happen — given that serendipity and misunderstanding seem to have been small but important elements in the ‘motor’ that drove chains of cultural production during the 20th century.

Google is in some ways a ‘serendipity engine’ (if you’re not searching it correctly, which few people seem to be able to do), while StumbleUpon is also a crude approximation of one — but I wonder if we might design far more streamlined and reliable ways of unearthing chance discoveries that will have meaning for cultural producers, while retaining some of their mystery and the potential for ‘creatively misunderstanding’ them. Perhaps not, perhaps it’s impossible in a world where everything now seems to be always-already discoverable — but it might be interesting to try.