Digital Nation

The title of a provocative PBS frontline documentary that I recommend. Young people spend 50 hours a week plugged in. The film-makers seem in favor of teachers integrating as much personal tech as possible. At the same time, they highlight researchers who are discovering that young adults aren’t nearly as good at multitasking as they think. For example, drivers who text are 23 times more likely to have an accident.

A few tech skeptics in the film argue that tech-happy schools inevitably reach a point of diminishing returns with respect to students’ shrinking attention spans, disinterest in reading books, deteriorating writing skills, and inability to think deeply about anything for a sustained period of time. How can teachers integrate technology—whether cell phones, wireless internet netbooks or laptops, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and related social network sites—without the negative consequences?

Most of the tech zealots in the film would argue the consequences aren’t necessarily negative because the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Times have changed, no big deal if people don’t read books or don’t write as well as they once did because they’re better prepared for the world of work and they’ve gained new, gratifying, virtual friendships. As one zealot says, “Okay, so people won’t write in as flowery a way.”

The loss of “flowery” writing isn’t my concern, it’s the loss of illuminating, insightful writing. When I read, I want to be enlightened. Help me think about something more deeply or in an entirely new way. Take me somewhere I’ve never been Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Chinua Achebe. Introduce me to new people, move me, change me.

Another question raised by the film is how is personal technology impacting young people’s writing? M.I.T. students in the film are quick to admit that the sum of their papers’ paragraphs don’t add up to more than the total. Each paragraph is okay, but they don’t build one upon another because they’re writing while instant messaging, checking email, watching YouTube videos, commenting on them, reading blogs, watching t.v., and listening to music. They have “paragraph-long” not “essay-long” attention spans. In ironic parallel structure, the filmmakers suffer from the same malady since the last-third of the film explores drone technology in what feels like a tangent definitely deserving of its own 86 minutes.

How is technology impacting my writing? Like everyone I’m suspect, I struggle with internet-based distractions including a steady stream of email, other people’s blogs, favorite websites, news headlines, sports scores, stock market swings, and on and on.

A month ago I had to cough up my university laptop for a day to get the OS updated. To quote Paul Krugman (Wednesday in response to Obama’s backpedaling on bankers’ pay), “Oh. My. God!” I culled reading material, student papers, class handouts, and other forms of clutter that had been collecting for months. Next, I read some of the reading material that survived the recycling bin. Then with notepad and pen, I made writing-related notes. At the end of the day, I felt like I accomplished more than normal and wondered why don’t I unplug regularly.

Digital fasting.

Maybe the gap between how I felt after a normal “plugged-in” day of near constant interruptions (email, websites, blogs, the phone, colleagues, students, etc.) and how I felt after my forced “unplugged day” explains why I haven’t purchased a cellphone yet. As someone once said about globalization, “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” I’m not ready yet to spread more toothpaste, in the form of incessant interruptions, onto my brush.

I don’t have a good answer for why I don’t unplug on a regular basis.

Truth be told, this blog may be a form of distraction. Instead of telling a sweeping, substantive story of some sort, one that rests upon numerous ideas carefully woven together, I spend thirty to forty-five minutes a few times a week writing 400 word mini-essays that rest on one or two partially developed ideas.

Telling a sweeping, substantive story would require me to focus for several weeks, months, or years. So far at least, I haven’t been up to that.

4 thoughts on “Digital Nation

  1. Technology is an issue. I must, however, speak up in defense of podcasts. I get 14 episodes of the excellent German weekly “Die Zeit” every week. I listen to it while I walk the dog. It is great to hear the spoken word, something that we have lost in this “visual” age. In addition, I listen to several excellent NPR podcasts weekly. The ipod is a good cover; if you read a book at a baseball game you are a wierdo, but nobody looks at you sideways if you have earphones in. There is a lot to be said for the spoken word.

    • I’ve been a radio guy since falling asleep at five and six years old listening to the ABA Kentucky Colonels and sometimes download podcasts for long rides. Seventeen came home from walking the abracadabradoodle recently with her iPod on and I gave her a hard time about not talking to him on the walk.

  2. Technology–you either love it and hate it–at least that’s been my experience. I am always plugged in, mostly because that’s been part of my job the last 7.5 yrs. I felt that the PBS documentary missed something important in its coverage and that is that not every adolescent is a digital native. I’ve been to Apple in Cupertino and loved it, but their belief that all adolescents are somehow connected digitally, is either naive or ignorant. What I have noticed teaching at-risk students online, is that there is a very large population of students that is digitally disconnected. This, despite the fact they go to school online. (Yes, I know- this brings up a whole other question of the merits of online learning, but I’ll save that discussion for another day). Most of my students know how to text, chat, and play online games. But that’s the extent of their digital experiences. They don’t know much about email, many times typing messages in all caps, and don’t even get me started on their ability or lack thereof for being able to complete, save and attach a Word document correctly to a dropbox or message. What I’m trying to say is that there is a HUGE digital divide. Heck, in southern Ohio, there is still no broadband!

    I start a new job tomorrow. I won’t be taking my computer to work with me and I know I will be dying to check my gmail, FB account, read up on all the news about Jon and Kate, (kidding), download music to my iPod, make Powerpoints for Elluminate, etc., etc. Sometimes I feel like I’ve developed ADD because I’m constantly updating, creating, reading, chatting, and typing. I worry my tech skills will diminish, but I look forward to face-to-face conversations.

    • Thanks Kelly, interesting points. Reminds me too of my favorite media literacy story that a PLU reference librarian told me. Morris Dees, the well-respected Southern Poverty Law Center attorney, was coming to PLU to give a talk. An undergrad decide to do some internet research on him before going to the lecture. She found a 25 page legal briefing that detailed nine extramarital affairs in gory detail. The student, appalled, marched to the reference librarian desk and said in essence, “How can we be inviting this person to campus?” The reference librarian took the title page, and in fifteen seconds said, “It’s a fraud. There are three typos on the title page. Any law firm worth its weight wouldn’t have any typos in the entire document.” They got on line and quickly discovered a white supremacist group had created the site explicitly to defame Dees who was winning case after case against them. Once students learn how to attach documents and use drop boxes, we have to teach them to distinguish between more and less credible websites. Hope your new job starts well.

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