Technology and Distraction

One item on the long list of great things about working at Carleton is that I can attend the weekly presentations offered by the College’s Perlman Center for Teaching and Learning (which is, perversely, called the “LTC”). Today’s presentation , conducted by a geology prof, a psych prof, and a student, was great:

Digital Nation: Electronic media are radically changing the way this generation of students thinks, learns and socializes–perhaps for the better, perhaps not. Join us as we view a brief segment from a PBS “Frontline” program that explores these issues, and discuss the potentially revolutionary implications of these changes.

The core of the presentation was a segment from Frontline‘s “Digital Nation” broadcast. Though I haven’t (yet) seen the entire show (which is available for viewing online), the featured segment unequivocally made the case that technologically-driven multitasking by college students (and, by extension, by others) is a practice that actually hampers the multitasker’s ability to accomplish tasks, alters the brain functioning of the multitasker, and even dumbs down American culture.

Those are heady claims, ones which the psychologst, Mija Van Der Wege, deftly qualified with information about multitasking and divided attention in general – not just the kind of technologically-driven multitasking villified (with some justice) by Frontline. The problem, Van Der Wege subtly argued, isn’t so much that technology makes us (pick your category: Americans, adults, humans) bad at multitasking, it’s that our brains are bad at it, whether the multiple tasks are checking Facebook, talking on the phone, listening to music, and writing a paper (the sort of scenario depicted in the show) or, say, tending children, singing, gathering berries, and watching for lions. We as organisms are just not wired to simultaneously do all that stuff – or, at least, not to simultaneously do all that stuff very well.

Van Der Wege’s point led naturally into a good Q&A session, which in turn led to a short post-presentation chat with a computer scientist (seriously: there aren’t many workplaces that allow a person to casually talk to scientists about their fields of expertise!) about the Frontline clip and the Q&A. As a self-described “technologist,” she didn’t take to the show’s contention (or the subtext in some of the Q&A exchanges) that technology per se was to blame for students’ multitasking, which jibed with my own reaction as an erstwhile historian of technology.

One key lesson that I gleaned from the history of technology is that problems that seem to be technological are often actually social problems which have been somehow folded into a machine, a factory, a process. Dividing the technical from the social often reveals that the real problem reside in social arrangements such as power differentials, resource allocations, or methods of learning. As one historian famously said, technologies are “frozen politics” – social decisions, capacities, knowledge, resources that have been literally engineered into a tangible form.

In the case of technologically-driven multitasking, the problem is less that our technologies allow, say, a constant feed of status updates from Twitter and Facebook and, I think, more that we have chosen to maintain many of our interpersonal connections through technologies. If the 24/7 social media world becomes too onerous, we could choose to disembed some of our relationships from technology, and in fact we see that happening with, for instance, “tweetups” – real-world parties attended by people who follow each other on Twitter. But the point here is that we’ve chosen, consciously or not, to allow technologies to constitute many of our social arrangements, and to shape many other aspects of life, such as how we read or write. As the Frontline piece pointed out, this isn’t new: the advent of print, for instance, destroyed the need to memorize huge quantities of knowledge – and the social role of those with that task. Similarly, the telephone has now been reshaping our social relationships for more than 125 years.

In questioning the value of being a “digital nation,” then, we should shift blame away from our technologies – with their seductive screens and sounds – and toward our own individual and collective decision-making. Just as we can choose to let Twitter and Facebook become tools for making friends (or to let the phone interrupt dinner), we can choose to turn off the smartphone and shut down the browser so that we can, say, tranquilly write for an hour on the laptop or sit in a comfy chair and read a book.

Which I’m going to do right now.

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