attention, engagement and the new generation

there’s been a lot of talk about the new generation and it’s inability to concentrate, focus, follow narrative, go deep…. it’s controversial and often makes me mad. here’s a great response to the new york times piece ‘growing up digital, wired for distraction’ november 21 2010

why is everyone worried about attention now? a great piece by cathy davidson at DMLcentral

‘attention versus distraction? what that big NY Times article leaves out’

streams of content, limited attention: the flow of information through social media danah boyd in the educause review, vol. 45, no. 5 (September/October 2010): 26–36

and one of the loudest voices, nicholas carr back in 2008 ‘is google making us stupid?’ ‘Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski’

I’m reflecting on my own response to a tweet calling for responses to a NYT article ‘your brain on computers’ in June 2010.  My response to the first tweet about this article got me thinking. I clicked on the link, read the first paragraph or two, ‘blushed in recognition’ at the dopamine squirt’ comment, tagged the article as one worth reading carefully – later when I had more time, sent off a hasty reply tweet in thanks, ReTweeted and then continued on my merry multitasking way.

But the taster stayed with me and I’ve been waiting for the moment when I could read the article in its entirety. It made me ask myself just how often do I read the whole article? When I first see it do I give it my full attention or do I almost always defer it until later and add it to my vast list of things to look at – later, always later. And how often do I make it back to the article or does it just lengthen the ‘to do’ list?

Most of my working day is spent at the computer; either the one on my desk or I’m roaming around the classroom looking at students monitors. I’ve noticed that I am an increasingly restless user with multiple windows open at any one time, checking tweets and emails every few minutes even when I’m in the middle of a big project that’s due yesterday. It’s difficult to decide if we’re just bored with the task at hand and searching for a more interesting and exciting distraction or if we’re scared we’re going to get left behind or miss something important. I suspect the latter is more significant than we’re prepared to admit. We want to belong, we want to feel part of something.

The truth is that for a lot of us this is largely voyeuristic. Many of us ‘follow’ but we don’t contribute. At least not very often. The sense we have of participating is often delusory and tinged with guilty conscience. I usually manage to rationalise the guilt by claiming that all of this activity is part of my profession, how I earn my living. I’m a teacher and a librarian. And I’m primarily a ReTweeter. Both roles can be seen as conduits for information. I’m out hunting and gathering, making connections and sending it back out there in the hope that someone will not just make use of it but find it as fascinating as I do.

The truth is that I’m a lot like Mr Ophir. It was my iphone that tipped me over the edge. So easy. The gateway drug. And like him I have to fight the urge to stay connected and multitasking most of the time. I’m strict with myself about leaving it on silent and in my pocket when I’m with real live people (well mostly!) reminding myself that fleshy people deserve mindful attention in real time. I leave my phone at home when walking the dog, when I’m at yoga… but I check it as soon as any of those activities are over. As soon as I’m home, back in the car, before I go to sleep. I honestly can’t imagine anything so important that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow. I’m beginning to see that this online stuff is social, it’s intellectual. What it threatens is my ability to be alone, comfortably in my own body and in my own headspace.

Going through this reflective process I vow to be more mindful while at the same time trawling through the other comments for some insight and new ways of seeing things. Curiosity wins out and then you come across something from someone that resonates –  and you’re hooked right back in again just when you’d considered a little hiatus was about due.

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