I don’t like their tone

“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

Facebook Comments
  • Jen

    Thanks for reflecting and sharing an important perspective. We’ve got a lot of things to sort through and the new media enables us each to have an entirely unique experience. There’s no control group to balance our studies. We all know that the connections with people bring the most value, learning and satisfaction, but balancing the media becomes problematic. We’ve got our individual contributions to consider, as well as the multitude of groups in which we participate at varying degrees. So many people are pointing at me as trying to balance online life and offline life, but it isn’t about that at all. I’m going to be online all the time. Period. I’ve done it for 15 years and will do it the rest of my life. I know how to balance that time.

    What I am trying to figure out, not just for myself, but for the people who learn from me, is which methods of communication will sustain the kind of social interaction I need and can provide the highest contribution. There is no bad or good, black or white. We do have to test everything, and those of us testing everything won’t have the same experience as those who read our evaluations and make informed choices to select only the tools that seem to fit their needs. It’s completely natural for the people swimming in the media to break connections and reform them to discover potential alternate uses and benefits. When our job is to immerse ourselves in these tools, we’re going to get burned out on them. That doesn’t mean the tools aren’t good for others. Most people won’t use them as heavily and won’t see the problem.

    We also need to recognize that we are playing with fire when we dabble in communications tools. Language alone can stir the strongest emotions. When amplified by multiple media options and influential social groups, we can’t take lightly the potential for social impact, personal injury and psychological damage. I think as responsible educators, we need to take inventory of our own social web presence, consider both our impact on the group as well as the effects on our person. Then we need to respect the unique experiences of our peers, and honor and support their candid reflections.

    Jens last blog post..Economic Stimulus

  • I too have been following this retrenchment and my take on it is slightly different.

    It’s not that I have trouble concentrating. It’s that I’m MUCH more critical. If what I’m reading isn’t engaging — isn’t relevant — I turn it off and go for something else. If your rich and meaty commentary on what-ever-the-heck-it-is-you’re-selling is boring, I’m going to turn you off. I read books – long books, complete books — and often in a matter of a day or two because they’re interesting. They engage me. And I have a very fine tuned BS detector. Trying to snare my attention with BS triggers the alarm and I move on.

    In the past, I might have stuck with something because the next thing wasn’t waiting for me in the queue. I’d read the flaming emails. I’d snigger at the trolls. Now? Uh uh. I got stuff to do. Places to go. People to see. Ideas that engage me. Novels to write. Podcasts to hear.

    It’s not a question of focus.

    It’s a question of relevance.

  • sophie

    I’d like to post a really long reply but I’m right in the middle of Tolstoy!! Kidding I’m currently hooked on Animoto but I’m too pretentious to admit it!! Love it…..this is the best summer reading I’ve had.

  • Kia ora Dean!

    I’m not a curmudgeon (I’ve said that before) and I agree with you.

    Where is the evidence that shows that teenagers (or whoever) were not
    called upon (or entered into) multiple activities at once. I know I did! I used
    to lie on the carpet watching television, plugged into my transistor radio
    through one ear while I did my homework. My dog used to lie down beside
    and bother me for toffee. So to those that claim all this newbie stuff about
    multi-tasking, get real!

    Thanks for the del.icio.us link on cells. That’s another area where my baloney
    detector kicks in. There is nothing new about walkie-talkies in cars. The Police,
    the taxis, the ambulances and the fire-brigades all have used them for decades!
    And what about air-pilots with their contact with air-traffic control? Where’s the
    evidence for distractions causing accidents there?

    Okay – I’m not condoning the use of cells when driving. BUT to claim that all this
    evidence of accidents being caused through the use of phones is something new
    is a lot of baloney. During a huge chunk of the 20th century, there have been
    thousands of opportunities for this evidence to be amassed. My hunch is that it’s
    more to do with awareness. It’s the old saying about acknowledging a problem –
    the first step to addressing a problem is recognising that it exists. If no-one has
    been gathering evidence related to accidents caused by the use of phones while
    driving, how can anyone say that it didn’t use to happen before mobile-phones
    arrived? To say that is baloney and shonky philosophy.

    Ka kite anō
    from Middle-earth

    Ken Allans last blog post..5 explanations of a Zen proverb

  • I personally am grateful for all the tool-of-the-day playing and excitement that happens within my network. Prior to joining the network, I worked on my own, learned on my own, and labored on my own in attempts to try new ideas in my classroom. Now, within 2 years, I have increased my toolbox so greatly that my students are constantly thrilled by the options offered to them when demonstrating knowledge. On any given day, I can find a spur of the moment sandbox with which to play around, a ustream of a workshop in which to learn, or a conversation about how to use a tool in the classroom. I wouldn’t want to give that up for anything. I never want to go back to learning on my own, at my own time – even if it means I have to wade through conversations about the latest movie or what’s for dinner or any of the other seemingly irrelevant conversations out there. And, sometimes, I even like to join in.

    Lisa Parisis last blog post..My Wordle Tag Cloud

  • Powerful piece. If I weren’t headed on a plane tomorrow to sit on a beach for a week, I’d be ‘busy’ trying to re-think much of this. In the meantime, I’m pleased that I managed to end up on the positive side of you line in the sand, Dean, according to your link back to a recent post of mine. [phew]

    There is no doubt that I’m actively re-thinking 90% of what I’ve been passionate about in the last 3+ years re: my experiences in the blogosphere and the larger digital landscape. Putting what used to be spent into chasing the ‘new’ into committing to what ‘matters’.

    That being said, my usage of these digital elements only increases, but admittedly I am using them in a more intentional manner…and tossing the majority of what I consider to be distraction-laden (yup, including Twitter…well, just about — wink).

    I find myself — whether in posts of mine, talking with colleagues, or working with clients — coming back over and over again to the simple premise that the ‘tool’ is not the point. The real focus of our efforts must remain ‘what do we want to accomplish’ and ‘what will allow us to get there in the most significant way.’

    Invariably a ‘tool’ shows up to help us if we listen carefully. And the cart-n-horse remain in the right order.

    Again, great stuff, Dean!

  • Thanks for this post. It was just what I needed today and prompted my own post centered on some of these issues. I suggested, as I often do, that placing the blame (or promise) for anything on technology is misguided. Behind the technology are people and people can make choices about how to use the technology in ways that are good or bad (nuclear energy vs. nuclear bomb). Technology has enabled many of us to connect, to have conversations we couldn’t otherwise and to start working on real problems together: preparing kids for a global economy, global warming, poverty.

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of people see the tweets and the ims and the blog posts that aren’t “serious” and dismiss the whole venture. And there are people in the tech industry who are completely distracted, always on, all the time. They’re giving this whole thing a bad name. 🙂

    And I agree with you on the issue of folks who complain that “these kids today” wasting their time with WoW and Facebook and blah blah. Well, when I was a teenager, I watched Love Boat and Fantasy Island and read Teen Beat magazine and called my friends to gossip. It’s what teenagers do. And I play WoW with people I know (and some people I don’t). How is that any worse than golf? (Except for the being outdoors part, but I do that in other ways). /rant

    Lauras last blog post..Web 2.0 and the future of . . .

  • Andrew

    “Does it not always come down to usage?”

    Yes! This is a really strong statement. I’m embarrassed that I’ve never really put it that way in my own mind, but I think it speaks to our responsibilities as parents and teachers. There will always be new tools and new modes of interaction. Frankly, I think that these developments always have inherent good, but we need to find out how they fit into our current framework.

    I think about the students I’ve had who have been obsessed with things: anime, Nine Inch Nails, World of Warcraft. The challenge is not how to compete with these things, but to help the student see how they fit into their world. So many “authority figures” see these things as threats when they are anything but… It’s work to help young people build a bridge between listening to Trent Reznor, reading Crime And Punishment and participating in quality online interactions with their peers, but isn’t that also the joy of teaching?

  • Dean, this was in interesting post to read. I often think about times when I’ve talked about the things I did when I was growing up 25-30 years ago and wonder why kids today aren’t doing those things. I have to stop doing that because you simply cannot compare childhood from years ago to childhood today. I don’t think kids just go out and “play” anymore. They don’t hop on their bikes and ride to a friend’s house, to a park, or a store. Activities are much more structured. There isn’t a lot in common and to expect the children of today to learn and experience life in ways we did is unrealistic. It’s a very different world – in some ways better and in others worse. However, it’s important to try and give kids opportunities to learn in ways that are appropriate for the times and meaningful to them.