Digital overload

Picked up a very interesting alert from Wired magazine today featuring an interview with the author of a book which argues that the constant interruptions and distractions that digital media offers us may (and I stress the word MAY) be rewiring our brains in a way that will make it even more difficult to concentrate on a single topic in depth. Now, this is of interest to educators because I’ve often heard people say “Well, my children can do their homework while listening to music and snowboarding on their Nintendo Wiis at the same time”  Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect, but I’ve never been wholly convinced by this argument. 

I’d be the first to admit that I am not one of the world’s great multitaskers, but my experience has been that if, say I put my iPod on and try and read or write at the same time,  I am pretty sure that if I’m concentrating on the text, I stop listening. (Or if I concentrate on the music I’m not simultaneously concentrating on what I’m writing or reading.) So from my experience I’d say that people aren’t working in parallel with these tasks, they’re working in series. (to borrow an electrical metaphor.) Of course, just because I can’t do something, doesn’t mean that others can’t but I do think that interruption is often fatal to the flow of thought. One thinks of Coleridge and the “Man from Porlock” who may have deprived English Literature of a great poem. (Nobody ever seems to suggest Coleridge might have been writing a load of old rubbish when he was interrupted, but I digress)

I suppose the point of all this rambling is should we switch off our twitterers and iPods, and sequester ourselves in some quite cloistered environment when we have a major project. Or just work at home. Or more to the point should we try and persuade students to do so. My inclination is to think that we probably shouldn’t. Thinking back to my days as an undergraduate (long before iPods and mobile phones) my mind found it quite easy to wander from social problems in pre-industrial Lancashire, or the antics of medieval popes to considerably less elevated academic topics. Maybe though there’s a way to get our mobile devices to get our attention back on track somehow. Texting questions to a lecture audience? Now that would be a neat trick!

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