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.
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.