A Distracting Article About Digital Distraction

This morning, I pulled out my iPad to read The New York Times feature entitled Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. After reading a few hundred words, I tweeted about reading it. Then I realized it was something like 4,000 words, so I took a break to go check Twitter. Then Facebook. Then my email. Then Yammer. Then I came back to reading — for another 1,000 words or so, before an Instagram Push Notification popped up. I hopped over there. Then I came back and finished the article.

This is pretty much the standard way I read things nowadays. It has taken a while to get used to, but now I’m fine with it. And increasingly, like it or not, this is the way the world is going to work.

There are two underlying currents in the NYT piece that are never fully stated: 1) That 17 year-old Vishal Singh is actually drawing something very educational and meaningful from his technology addiction. 2) That eventually someone will come up with some sort of cure for this digital overload.

There is no cure for this. If anything, it’s going to get much worse. So we can either bitch about how much that sucks, and how it’s ruining society. Or we can adapt and change some of the fundamental concepts of what learning is.

That latter idea isn’t going to be easy for some people to swallow. Parents, in particular, I imagine. I’m not a parent. But I’m also not that far removed from being a kid. I didn’t grow up in a world where everyone had a computer in their pocket (smartphones), but I wish I had. Instead, my high school years saw pagers give way to the first truly portable cellphones (not the Zack Morris/Gordon Gekko variety). But it was already a time when everyone had a computer at their home that was connected to the Internet.

The Internet was a magical place at that time. It still is. In fact, with all of these different ways to use it and access it now, it’s even more magical. I’m tempted to be cautious in the way I say this, but I can’t come up with a real reason to be, so I’ll just say it: I have definitely learned a lot more on the Internet than I ever did in high school.

High school, at least when I attended it, was much more about learning social skills than educational information. The education side of things was more like one big game. You had to figure out how to play the game so you could get into a good college. It was about memorizing things for tests that you’d forget a week later, and figuring out how you could do your homework in the free period before the class in which it was due. I more or less remember nothing from high school beyond the times I spent with friends. And I know I’m not alone there.

One major problem with high school learning is that you are forced to take certain classes which you couldn’t care less about. I understand that the rationale behind this is that it makes you a more “full” person, and you might learn you love something that you didn’t realize you would. But that mentality is from a pre-connected world. I would guess that a lot of students these days know what they’re really passionate about at a much earlier age, thanks to the Internet. Kids like the aforementioned Singh figure out a passion for video editing and filmmaking not through high school, but through the web and technology. And his high school doesn’t cater to that passion. Instead, they want him to take a Latin class. Yes, Latin.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that it’s the Latin teacher that seems the most concerned about technology distractions. He’s teaching something that was infinitely more useful in 10 A.D. than in 2010 A.D.

Other teachers mentioned in the article, to their credit, seem much more open to ideas about utilizing technology to augment their teaching. In my view, that’s the only way forward here. You can try to ban the use of technology in the classroom, but it will find a way in. Or kids will find a way out. Resistance is futile.

What’s also sort of humorous about all of this is that it sounds a lot like the “television will rot your mind” stuff of yesteryear. And probably radio before that, etc, etc. New technology is going to keep coming at us that’s going to alter the way we live. To try to pretend like it doesn’t exist, or to automatically assume that it has to be a bad thing that’s going to lead to the corruption of our youth is ridiculous. Embrace and change. I just don’t see a reason why all of these great tools can’t help us learn more, rather than less.

I’m also reminded of what Bill Gates said at the Techonomy conference this past August. He extended the idea of learning via the Internet to college as well. “Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university,” he said. Easy for a college drop-out who subsequently became the richest man in the world to say. But he’s very likely right.

Certain people will need to go to places of higher education for the access those institutions have to tools that a person would otherwise not be able to get access to. And there’s no denying the value of a good teacher/professor. And certain people will definitely always benefit from the combination of social environment mixed with structured learning. But not everyone learns the same way.

If you’re a self-starter, why shouldn’t you be able to get your education on the web? Because there are too many distractions? Please. Those distractions don’t seem to be an issue for Singh when he’s doing what he loves (filmmaking), just when he’s doing what he’s forced to do (Latin). Funny how that works.

[image: flickr/underminingme]