Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.
Jeff Jarvis, BuzzMachine
There is a lot being written these days about how distracted the young generations are and how that is effecting their learning. Times are a changing, but such is the way of life and has always been the case in previous generations. This past weekend, Matt Richtel wrote an article for the New York Times that has brought this argument to a larger portion of the population that may have been unaware of the challenges being faced in the education system.
Titled Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction, the article focuses on how some students appear to be falling apart in their studies while succumbing to the variety of distractions available to them, while others are thriving. A digital culture can be partially blamed for some students’ failures (an example in the article is the girl who stops reading a homework assignment to text message a friend), but it also helps some students discover their passions and learn at a different speed than a structured school system can support. A few of the educators are latching onto the new technology while their colleagues lament the changes being brought to them.
What’s also sort of humorous about all of this is that it sounds a lot like the “television will rot your mind” stuff of yesteryear. And probably radio before that, etc, etc. New technology is going to keep coming at us that’s going to alter the way we live. To try to pretend like it doesn’t exist, or to automatically assume that it has to be a bad thing that’s going to lead to the corruption of our youth is ridiculous. Embrace and change. I just don’t see a reason why all of these great tools can’t help us learn more, rather than less.
MG reminds us all that these challenges and cries denouncing technology are nothing new. I have certainly witnessed a lot of changes, like MG notes, from a disconnected elementary school (playing Oregon Trail on Apple IIE’s) to the beginning of connection (Mosaic browser, internet connected BBS’s, cellphones), to complete immersion in the digital age (smartphones, wifi, broadband connections, all devices being internet enabled). Through all the changes, I have often wondered how our brains have been able to handle all of these changes seamlessly without a lot of struggle.
Jeff Jarvis argues in his post that we’re evolving to handle these distractions automatically. The more I think about it, I think he is more right in his quote that this is how our brains really work. How can this be though?
I say blame the programmers.
Human nature is to be constantly aware of our surroundings and what is happening. It’s a survival tactic that we have adapted to other purposes. Before, we were always conscious that danger may strike at any second, had an eye on the clouds and the winds, noticed tracks on the ground, etc. Our species are hyper-aware compared to some creatures. It is both a blessing and a curse.
Media use this flaw in our nature to capitalize on it for their own needs. It has been a lesson that can be traced back to the beginnings of formal entertainment in Greek theatre. Greek citizens in Athens were required to stop their daily lives to attend the theatre to listen to the poets. That structure has only evolved from there with other forms being discovered (opera, live concerts, various forms of theatre), to others being developed (books and written documents, radio, television, computers). The one thing in common through all these forms is they breed a lifestyle of needing to watch/listen away from our daily routines, in order for us to capture all information they feed to us. That break was initially a physical break (attending the theatre, concert, political rally), but has now become a mental break and fragmentation.
In the 20th century, media were able to fine tune these breaks into a need. Radio shows came on at certain times of day. You had to be at home listening to the program to capture that information or entertainment. When you failed to follow that program, you were slightly less knowledgable than your neighbour who did listen in. Media transformed an entertainment program into a must-see experience.
Those must-see experiences only available at a certain time and space, have shifted over to other parts of our lives through programming. Through a digital lifestyle, programmers have tapped into the effects of the media’s must-see experiences and our natural paths to being hyper-aware of our surroundings. It is not enough to be aware of what is happening around us. We must know right away or we become slightly less than our friend or neighbour.
The part that drives us forward in allowing us to fall for these distractions is that what lies in front of us is safe and not going away; the distractions may be valuable information that could have a short shelf life and expire. The enablers in allowing our minds to function this way are the programmers developing Twitter, Facebook, email, text messaging, etc. They provided us the tools to create further distractions.
We have always been a people that valued information over relaxation tendencies. Laziness and sleeping the day away have never been highly touted attributes for people to have. Digital lifestyles are enhancing the hyper awareness we have for our surroundings and information that will drive most of us to a point of exhaustion. People have no desire to pare down their experiences and information load, only build on them and take more in. We all want to build personal skyscrapers of information and experiences to share with others that will make us more valuable. At the same time, we want to build up our networks of connections to keep that flow of information coming in to continue the development of our skyscrapers.
The problems that the educators are having in the NY Times article are not going to be solved in their lifetimes or mine. The solution is not going to be an easy one for them to grasp either. The fundamentals of being a person are important things to be taught, but the individual courses will give way to an education based around the individual’s needs in order to build their own skyscrapers.
Trying to build like-minded individuals with the same set of skills is simply bad programming.