July 23, 2008

I don’t like their tone

This post was last updated on September 5th, 2011 at 11:04 am

“When I was your age, I didn’t spend hours on the internet or have social networks, we watched a lot of crappy TV and memorized the periodic table and we loved it!”

It seems a bit early but we already have a plethora naysayers of new media. It’s always good to have critical voices in our lives to question thought and behaviour. (those of you who are married should be quite familiar with this concept) It’s good, it really is. But I can’t help but wonder if some of what I’ve read lately about the demise of our culture because of the participatory and social nature of the digital world is not only a bit on the cantankerous side but almost self-righteous.

Within my network there seems to be a  “whac-a-mole” reaction to anyone who gets the least bit excited about a new tool or device.  I’m getting a sense that some are jumping the gun a bit early.

Today I read this article thanks to Mr. Jakes and his delicious feed. The article quotes a number of folks who worry about the decline of our culture to focus and be diligent. As I read the article I could hear my son who for 3 hours was playing WOW with his friends online (real, friends who live in the same city). Not exactly a high level academic pursuit I know but one of the arguments of late is that kids can’t focus.  When I look back at my childhood, I certainly wasn’t sitting around reading Tolstoy. I’m not sure there’s solid research to back these claims.

I think about the book by Steven Berlin Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You. Maybe he needs to do some research and write a second edition in order to combat the more recent naysayers. I’m not saying there aren’t any ill effects of new media, instant access and social networks. We need to be aware of how machines and media may be manipulating us and begin to take control. My fear is that these types of perspectives aren’t necessarily research based but observational.

I do admire when folks I trust begin to reflect honestly and openly about their digital life. I pay attention because they’ve proven to be trusted sources. Thinking out loud is good sometimes. They aren’t complaining, but simply trying to sort things out on a personal level. I think ultimately that’s the proper response.  The tone of some of the article is lopsidedly pessimistic and seems to miss a historical and evolutionary perspective.  That’s why I like Shirky. He deals with the printing press and then more recently made an interesting tie to gin and sitcoms as examples of what happens when there is cognitive surplus. This is not to say that all change is for the good or that the internet and social media has not caveats or downsides. But I’m simply bothered by a desire to categorize anything as making us stupid. Does it not always come down to usage? We could make the same arguments against alcohol, video games and television they all have destructive qualities but needn’t necessarily be categorized as bad. Instead we seek balance, and determine how to make the most of these resources.

Still, the early sense of nostalgia for “the good old days” seems a bit contrite. I hear parents talking about the good old days of school when kids sat in straight rows and never questioned their teachers. Is there some things from those days that are appealing? Absolutely but I’d never want to go back.  As much as educational reformists would suggest we need big changes, I still say we’re moving in the right direciton in most cases. Still miles to go but to say we’ve digressed is wrong. Again, there is a great deal of generalizations with these statements and can always point to examples that would dispute any claims but my generalizaiton is that today’s world has the potential for more good than harm.

I’ve been writing this post over about 3 days and just now read George Seimens post on it and he does a nice job of synthesizing in about half the space what I really was thinking:

It is rather obvious that information abundance and multitasking are contributing to our collective anxiety. We start jonesing after only a few minutes of broken contact with email, mobile phone, or internet (ok, you might not, but I do). Weak, often shallow social, connections don’t result in deep understanding. At least not in themselves. I’m not satisfied, however, with the tone of this article. What is the solution? Stop the information flow? No new software? Hardware? Um, ok, that won’t happen. The road we are on does not yet suggest suitable off ramps. The primary options left are about adapting ourselves or our tools. Realistically, do people expect that the solution to the problem is as simple as focusing more and becoming less distracted? It’s a good article of complaint. And it’s easy to complain. Suggesting solutions and future directions is where the hard thinking occurs.

So if George was not satisfied with the article, that makes me feel a lot better.

Flickr image: grizzled_old_man_large by Derrty Mario