Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tool or Distraction?

I just read this article, "Solitude and Leadership," by William Deresiewicz. He claims that America lacks leaders, defining leaders as people who can think for themselves. Deresiewics places part of the blame on social media: "Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else."

He also claims that not only does social media keep us from thinking for ourselves, but thinking at all: "Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube."

This raises some interesting questions for our class: Is social media a key to thinking, or a distraction from it? So far in this class, has social media been a distraction or a help in your research? Have you spent more time learning how to use Diigo or setting up a blog than thinking about your topic?


  1. Excellent way to summarize and introduce an important challenge to the enthusiasm for socially networked knowledge. And I appreciate you asking us questions at the end of your post. This reminds me of important (and highly disputed) criticism from Andrew Keen. It's healthy to look at strong challenges to the new paradigm. See a summary of Keen's concerns here:

  2. This is really interesting to me too, especially since I just read something in the book Born Digital that argues that digital natives do not have a "online" identity and and "offline" identity. The author argued that they have a single identity, but Deresiewicz seems to think that they have NO identity. I am more inclined to agree with the argument you found.

    And yes, I have let some of the social media get in the way of my research rather than promote it.

  3. Excellent thoughts, Ben. I think these criticisms are legitimate. Social media is obviously a huge source of distraction. I know from too much experience. I agree with the importance of focusing on one thing for a sustained period of time. I think the most productive and stimulating learning experiences I've had were just that. Spending hours browsing through interesting but disconnected information, however, leaves my brain feeling (metaphorically) numb and flabby afterward, rather than engaged and stimulated. I think the more things that we are signed onto or subscribed to, the harder it is to focus.

    To answer your questions: It's kind of early in the process to say if the new media has been more of a help or a distraction in learning and research; I'm still just getting started. But what I can say for sure is that it's extremely time consuming. With all the updating, adjusting, following, browsing, clicking, and commenting, hours can go by without any really quantifiable measure of progress. It's a complex set of activities with various purposes and varying levels of usefulness. The line between worthwhile research and distraction is blurred beyond all reason. It's hard to come away from the new media experience with a strong, clear idea of what is being gained from it. I think even our classtime has reflected these problems a bit, if I dare say so.

    It looks like the debate on this topic can be intense on both sides. But obviously, moderation must be exercised, and the best path lies somewhere in the middle.

  4. I think you make some good points here; what follows is my argument for the way that we may be able to avoid consumers being mere "sponges" with no volition or original thinking:

    Have everyone become a teacher. Not officially, but in the way that they share media with each other. Maybe you could also say "an artist," using the media to produce. For instance, many technological advances including those involving Web 2.0 give the lay person access to many, many tools for self-expression and communication and indeed education. Blogs are an obvious example, but really everything we are doing in this class. If someone merely clicks at lightning speed through link after link, that's a problem. But if someone crafts a blog post, or constructs and edits a video to post on youtube, or makes a mash-up of two different things to form a new one, that all involves critical thinking; it involves taking the time to make decisions that are personal and important. And if students are required to do those sorts of things academically, it encourages them to be creators.

    I think that within classrooms, one of the best ways for students to learn is to be required to teach something to their peers. And if it accessible and fun for them to do it using popular tools, so much the better.

  5. I guess I would add that the benefit of new media is that it is the tool of the younger generation, a tool for those who are not yet "the man," entrenched in hierarchical authority. It gives us whippersnappers a way to have power because the tools are not merely loaned to us from Academic Powers that be, as much literature and literary criticism has been

  6. also, here's a fun but useless link that may say some interesting things about online activity. It measures how fast you can click your mouse in 10 seconds.

    I maxed out at 71.

  7. Neal, I really like what you said about how new media gives students power because "the tools are not merely loaned to us from the Academic Powers that be." I think the way things are changing will force academia to innovate and evolve and the results will be better for everyone.
    However, I think there still needs to be some type of authority. You said that new media can "give the lay person access to many, many tools for self-expression and communication." My question is does the lay person have something valuable to say? What makes an idea valuable? Is there perhaps a good reason for some of the hierarchical systems we have now, a reason why the ideas of somebody w/ PhD are more valuable than the lay person's?