Now that I have your attention

Richard Scarry

The worm was using his tail to send a text before he crashed his apple.

If there’s one thing author and illustrator Richard Scarry taught me as a kid, it’s a busy, busy world. Currently on my plate are two assignments for my medical anthropology course, my book edit, and of course my day job. This morning I came in, checked my email, sent some correspondence, answered a text message…

…hang on, I have  a phone call…

Ok…right…um, I made a coffee and then briefly looked at Twitter and Facebook. I got in at 8.20, and it is now 8.35. In getting stuck into the daily news feeds and scanning for science stories, I followed a train of links to a 2009 BBC story. Maybe you read it? Don’t remember? Maybe it was because you were doing too many things at once under the assumption that you were good at multitasking.

Sorry, won’t be a moment. Somebody’s stopped in to ask me where I put a report.

Now, where was I? Oh yes – there’s no doubt that the technological landscape we’re driven to engage with each day encourages us to do more things collectively. Average shot lengths in movies have changed over time in an attempt to align with our understanding of how we allocate our attention. We have greater diversity of short, efficient communication tools constantly at our fingertips. With the latest in smart phones, we can text, email, tweet or call people. The law is eager to catch up, fining people who try to do any one of these things while driving.

Yet as we’ve known for a while…

…two seconds – just got a text…

…Hm, thought I’d already answered that. Anyway, most of us aren’t very good at dividing our attention between tasks, in spite of what we’d like to believe. While there are surely gifted savants out there who can read War and Peace, watch Master Chef and chat with their mother over the phone all at once, there’s a far greater chance that we simply think we’re good at doing this as the information washes past into oblivion.

I question what this means for us as our sources of information diversify and change. We skim through blogs – like this one – that are commonly stitched together in spare moments by grass roots amateurs, checking RSS feeds or teasers in search for something to occupy the next five seconds.

Ooh, wait, that reminds me, have you seen Ok Go’s new film clip? The one with the dogs? You have? Hilarious, isn’t it?

What was I saying? Oh, right…

Is the fact we consume data from so many feed troughs a positive thing? Does the multitude of authors force us to think critically as we compare and contrast the snippets of information? Or perhaps we as a society are so poor at critical evaluation of the information we read, having more of it doesn’t translate into better quality learning. Misinformation breeds through repetition, with multiple sources of sound bites making it even harder to dispel.

In doing  a final  fact-check of my book, I came across a new source that contradicted something I’d written. Given its authorship, I trusted it over the statement I’d previously used. If it weren’t for the fact this is a writing piece which has required multiple edits strung out over many months, the mistake would have remained. Short deadlines, whether self-imposed by a blogger or a result of the hectic world of journalism, makes for…

…hang on, somebody wants me to send a link on instant messenger…

Where was I? Right… makes for a greater chance of errors. And in this junk-food information economy, we’re less inclined to care for the quality of communication. As it is, we’ll flick through an article, make an assumption about what it says without pausing to give it much thought and leave a comment that reflects our apathy.

The digital age is upon us, yet its rapid pace gives each generation little time to consider how to imbue the next one with the skills to get the most out of it. As a teacher responsible for my school’s information technology resources, I was amazed by how few teachers were comfortable with IT in their classroom. A fraction of the staff had grown up with email, most only becoming acquainted with it in their thirties or forties. As a consequence…

…hang on, another email…

…Wait, what was I saying? I’ve lost my train of thought.

Doesn’t matter…I’m pretty sure nobody’s read this far anyway.

Published in: on September 23, 2010 at 9:59 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m also trying to edit a book in my spare time. The only way I can get anything done is to completely disconnect my computer from the internet, because otherwise the urge to check Twitter, or emails, or Facebook, or a blog, is overwhelming. And as someone trying to promote critical thinking skills I find that very scary, for the reasons you’ve identified here.
    When I’ve brought up teaching children how to use technology I’ve been told not to worry about it, they are digital natives. It’s all around them and they will learn just like we did with books. But I know how many people of my generation don’t know about books – they don’t read for pleasure, they don’t read with understanding, they don’t have critical literacy. And the same thing is happening to our children. They may tweet and text and facebook and blog, but whether they have the critical skills to think about it is a completely different matter.

  2. Reading this, I felt like the kid in ‘The Never Ending Story’;by the end I couldn’t help but feel it was all about me!
    Spooky insightful stuff.

  3. I receive a few emails from kids during my week. Few are well written, and I’m not just referring to spelling or punctuation. A tiny but significant percentage are just plain rude and insulting. One was a death threat (‘Don’t send me any more emails or I’ll kill you!’). Now, don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of lovely responses as well. But the fact remains, with simple, easy-access communication there are new responsibilities. It took time to write a letter; emails can be sent without hesitating to pick your words. And this is something kids are doing without the guidance of an experienced generation.

    I’m optimistic that these skills will eventually stabilise and find their way into education, however the gap is interesting. So too, critical thinking in education is going forward rather than backwards, as I see it. However technology is evolving so much faster than society, and these growing pains are well worth paying attention to.

  4. I’m now concerned as to how many of those interruptions were due to me! 0.0

  5. Might there be an rss feed so i can read these posts at a time convenient?
    Thoughtful posts. 🙂

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