Tag Archives: internet

Babies and Bath Water

I am reading a fascinating book: ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr. I strongly recommend it. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the differences between ‘deep reading’ and the kind of interconnected, hyperlink driven reading that we engage with when we read on the internet.

Deep reading is the thoughtful, internalized reading we engage on when we read a book from cover to cover, when we engage with it at a deep level and contemplate the characters or the ideas contained within it. It is essentially linear – we start at the beginning and go on to the end.

Internet based reading is a different animal. It is filled with distractions and opportunities to be sidetracked that take up working memory as we decide whether to ignore them or follow their seductive paths. Carr is afraid that this kind of reading – and it is fast becoming the predominate form of reading – will lead to superficial thinking.

In a recent conversation with a university professor friend I heard her bemoaning the kind of ‘gist thinking’ that she felt was becoming far too commonplace among her students. “They think they understand, but they are satisfied with just the gist of the idea”. This, I think, is exactly what Carr is writing about.

But when something new comes along we are naive to think it will simply replace what has gone on before. Every new medium does not mark the previous media for obsolescence. People feared that TV would bankrupt cinemas. It has done no such thing and multiplexes thrive and continue to grow. We thought TV might destroy live theatre, but it has not. Certainly the CD led to the demise of the cassette tape, but that was because the CD did exactly the same thing as the cassette tape – only better.

Internet reading, with its interconnected, networked nature involves a very different kind of thinking from the deep, linear thinking that a good book offers. They both have us thinking in different ways, and both ways are powerful.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to teach our kids how to navigate the rich, interconnected world of the internet. We need to encourage them to make connections, to link old knowledge with new discoveries, to create networks in their understandings than are essentially horizontal, broad and integrating. But we also need to make sure they see the value of deep reading, of mining at depth a rich seam of knowledge. There is a place for ‘gist’ thinking, but it doesn’t replace deep thinking.

 

 

 

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Distractions and Engagement

Everywhere I go now there are TV screens. In the doctor’s waiting room, at the car repairers, in restaurants, at airports. Everywhere. It’s as though we are being told that we don’t know how to amuse ourselves with our own thoughts or with a book.

I remember the great conversations we had as a family when our kids were small. We would go out to dinner every now and then and the new environment, the people around us, the occasion itself were spurs to some great discussions, lots of laughter and questions, questions, questions from the kids. They were curious and intrigued by everything. We relished the opportunities to interact with them and get them thinking about what they saw and heard.

I was in a restaurant last week and at the adjacent table was a family of five. The parents had their eyes pretty much glued to the TV screen on the wall in front of them, two of the kids were profoundly involved with their phones and the third just sat gazing into the middle distance. What else could he do? There was no one to talk to.

The disturbing thing was that my phone was sitting on the table on front of me, and it buzzed. My hand went almost instinctively to pick it up, to check out what piece of utter trivia or earth shattering importance was waiting for me. We were in the lull between having placed our order and receiving it. That space where you dip your bread in the olive oil and balsamic and try not to take too much edge off your appetite. It was the time when you check out the other diners, rearrange your napkin, ponder whether dessert is a likely option tonight. I knew if I picked up my phone, my companion would probably pick up his and there we would be, both tied by our eyeballs to our phones.  Conversation potential zilch!

When did we forget to talk to each other? When did the world around us decide that we could no longer be occupied with our own thoughts and the thoughts of others? Why are we allowing this to happen?

I think we are in real danger of forgetting how to engage – to engage with ourselves and with others. I fear that we are becoming immersed in a sea of distractions that tug us away from one another, and away from what goes on in our own heads. On our phones we flick from email, to twitter, to facebook, and back again. On our computers we hit link after link, scanning articles, leaving them half read and hardly considered as we move on to the next fascinating throw away tag line.

I think we need to learn a whole new set of manners about smart phone use in public. I also believe we need to teach our kids and ourselves to resist the temptation to flit about like intellectual butterflies from one distraction to another, from one hyperlink to the next. We need to teach our kids and ourselves how to engage.

It is possible to set an Ipad so that the opportunities for browsing are limited. With ‘Guided Access’ the teacher or parent can restrict usage to a single application and control which features are available. If your kids are using Ipads at home or at school for a specific purpose you can encourage them to stay on task, in focus and not be tempted to flutter off to the next pretty flower.

My son tells me of a great smartphone game when groups go out to dinner together. Everyone puts their phone in a pile in the center of the table, one on top of the other. The first person to pick up a phone should it ring or buzz has to buy a round of drinks.

Students easily become overloaded by the sheer volume of sources available to them when researching on the internet. Instead of allowing them to jump from source to source, teach them how to thoroughly investigate one or two. Show them how to determine the source of the information, encourage them to read to the end, ask them to compare and evaluate two sources on the same subject, for example www.crazydogtheoriesonhealth.com and www.mayoclinic.com or www.theearthreallyisflat.org and www.nationalgeographic.com.

Start a movement! The Bring Back Conversations Movement. Create a T shirt. Ask for a table where you can sit with your back to the TV in a restaurant. Design a bumper sticker. Start a conversation group.  Do whatever it takes to encourage people to communicate with clarity and precision and to listen with empathy and understanding.

In the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman I discovered that simply placing children in desegregated schools doesn’t appear to lead to greater racial interaction. Young children when dressed in either a red or a blue t-shirt at school will eventually choose their friends from those kids wearing the same color shirt. It seems to be that only when we talk about something can we begin to influence behavior. We need to talk to our kids about the need for conversation. We need to teach them how to participate. We should be encouraging them to explore the contents of their own mind and the minds of others and then to share their ideas.

It isn’t one thing or another. We should be teaching our kids how to be sociable users of social media. We should also be teaching them how to interact and communicate without always needing an electronic gadget as an intermediary.

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A Vaccine for the Internet Virus

Do you find emails in your in box that make you gasp with amazement that something so terrible could actually be true? Are you amazed to discover that one of your political leaders is even more unscrupulous than you had suspected? Are you disturbed to discover that your worst fears are supported and that there is, in fact, a giant conspiracy operating? Or are you just sleeping less soundly at night because the Mayan’s have predicted the end of the world in 2012?

These emails are often the result of well-meaning friends reposting something they came across on the internet. They repost it to their friends, their friends repost it to their friends and on and on – suddenly it’s gone viral because we were all vectors for infection!

Maybe there has never been a more important time for us to deepen our thinking. One of the Habits of Mind tells us to gather data through all our senses. I would like to add a little to that and suggest we need to gather data through all our senses AND all our sources. And keep in mind that it is data we need to be gathering, not just opinion.

These emails are often filled with a kind of data – quotes, descriptions of events, sentences from press releases – but I remember being taught at school to go back to primary sources and documents whenever possible. And why is this? Because it is so very easy to completely distort the message if you change the context. Let’s take a recent case. The author and television presenter  Clive James, was recently interviewed by Radio 4 in London and in the course of the interview he mused on his own mortality and the fact that he was a lot closer to the end than to the beginning. This interview with its nuances, tones of voice, pauses, laughs and the like was then taken up by a print journalist from the Daily Mirror and without all these subtleties his written article looked as though James was teetering on the edge of the grave. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9349291/Clive-James-Im-not-dead-yet.html. James was highly irritated by the rumours of his imminent death that this article sparked.

Teachers encourage their students to question what they read and hear. They are skilled in helping young people drill through the surface layers and get to the sources. One of my most useful web sites to help with this task is www.snopes.com. Here you can type in the latest rumour or viral ‘fact’ and begin to test its veracity and reliability. Snopes will provide information about where it came from and what other information is available to help us decide if it is ‘true’, ‘false’ or ‘undecided’.

Skilled thinkers ask questions and take in data through all their senses and from all their sources. The internet serves the rumour mill like nothing ever has before. Thinking is the tool that can apply a vaccine to control viral emails. Think before you hit the ‘send’ button.

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