This week we've all been awash in articles about how our attention is being destroyed, our brain shrunken, our affections diverted, and all by new media. Really? Oh, come on, everyone! It's time to get over this and think about what we can be doing with the new media that isn't going away. All the hand wringing is getting tiresome. Clay Shirky and Jonah Lerner did a great job entering the fray, with Clay pointing out the speciousness of the "internet makes you dumber" logic and Jonah pointing out the really terrible misuses of neuroscience in the melodramatic "attention shallows" arguments by Nicholas Carr.
Instead of beating that horse, I want to respond to a recent and very interesting blog post on this site by Travis Brown of the University of Texas. He writes about a programmer site called StackOverflow that operates on two basic assumptions:
- Reputation is rigidly formal and quantified.
- Social networks are entirely based on ad-hoc conventions.
Operating from these assumptions StackOverflow offers points and credits and badges for everything you do, so you can soon become a top dog on the site and everyone knows it, even if they do not know your identity. Your identity is defined by your contribution and your accomplishment. That is very much the logic of game mechanics too. You succeed by doing, you are rewarded in the process of doing in very direct ways, assessment is intrinsic to accomplishment, reward is reputational.
Now, let's put that together with the attention distress. Perhaps the real issue isn't that we are distracted but that some forms of new media provide more satisfying ways of giving us feedback on what we do. Watch the television for an hour and you come away with a wasted hour. Play a game or interact on a social networking site for an hour and you might earn a badge, learn a new skill, gain some reputational credit, make contact with an old friend, or make a new friend. The reward is not diverted and extrinsic but immediate and it is tied directly to you, as a person, because of what you do, not because of who you are, what you look like, how much money you make, where you earned a degree or if you earned one, what your job is, and on and on.
This is the kind of continuous feedback that a loving parent delivers feedback to an infant, in the moment, nurturant, encouraging, satisfying, immediate, intrinsic to learning and accomplishment, not an add on. It is the ideal form of learning we should be modeling and promoting in all our educational endeavors.
There are many ways to pay attention in a new world of new media. Putting your head in the sand--decrying the present because you want to live in a fantasy-version of a past that never existed--is not one of them.