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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Digital Media Interruptions

                  “You are not reading your textbook, you are reading your facebook” and “get off of Google and get on to your homework” are comments heard regularly in my house.  I most often give these directives to my teenage children, and am usually somewhere between yelling and screaming in terms of volume and emotion.  It is a mystery to me why anyone would want to sit at the computer for hours at a time, completing homework at a snails pace because of regular intervals of texting friends, facebook status updates, and tweeting.  I just don’t get it.   That is, I didn’t get it until this weekend.  Now not only do I get it, but I am guilty of doing it.
  Much like any other college student, I find the weekends a very important time for reading, researching, writing and studying.  Long blocks of time uninterrupted by class lectures give me a chance to take thinking to the next level, to not only read about another’s argument, but to think about it and to develop my own opinions and express them in my own pieces of work.   I even find the distractions to studying that I face surprisingly similar to that of a younger, more traditional student.  The noise and commotion of dorm living are replaced by the family noises of children yelling and arguing.  The temptation of going to watch school games and sporting events are replaced by attending my children’s games and practices.   Participating in drinking and partying?  These things occur at any age. I had anticipated all of these distractions, and even built in safeguards against some of them.  What I did not anticipate, in any way shape or form, is the role that digital media would play in interrupting my study sessions.
                  Let me preface my argument of digital media interruptions by telling you that a few significant things occurred this weekend in the community in which I live.  Firstly, The Principal and Assistant Principal of my son’s high school, the former a friend of my husband, resigned their positions because the Michigan State Police caught them in the “sharing of inappropriate e-mails which violated the school’s acceptable use of technology” agreement.  This is big time news in our relatively small, tight knit community.  Secondly, between my five children, our family had fifteen baseball games on the docket for the weekend, none of which I was planning to attend because of the large amount of homework due on Monday.   As you can imagine, I was constantly interrupted from my work by text messages updating me about my children’s games, facebook updates chronicling the community reaction to the loss of our school administrators, and my own following of the news media reports on the story.  Who could have guessed that the mom who continually yells at her children for “being on facebook instead of in the textbook” would be committing the very same “crime”? How could I possibly get to a higher level of thinking when I was tweeting every ten minutes?
                   Nicholas Carr writes in “Is Google making us Stupid”: “I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I can feel it most strongly when I am reading.  Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy.  My mind would get caught up in the argument and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do.”  Hearing my text message alert ding, while a call comes in my laptop via Skype simultaneously with my facebook account generating me an e-mail that a friend has updated their status, I can only agree with Carr all the more!
                  However, using the armchair quarterback approach to evaluating my weekend and the use of my time, I am quite pleased with the results.  I completed all of my assignments.  This was no easy task as they included a lengthy reading, two lab reports, studying for a huge exam that will cover 215 pages from textbook,  reviewing a documentary film and writing a critique, reading three articles of average length, as well as writing this essay.  By any standard, that is a lot of work, despite all of the digital interruptions. Was this amount of work completed in spite of the digital interruptions or, in part, because of the digital interruptions? Digital media does not shut out the possibility of high level thinking and production; rather it enhances it, often producing fantastic results.
                  In almost all of my academic assignments this weekend, I had to research a word or concept of unknown meaning or origin in order to proceed.  My preferred mechanism for this research is Google Scholar. Many of the sites I looked at provided hyperlinks to other sources of information, sometimes close to my original question, and other times not, nonetheless broadening my exposure and understanding of the related topic.  In her introduction to the book “Broadening the Medium”, Janet H. Murray argues both the humanistic and engineering viewpoints of the computer.  She mentions the work of two philosophers, Deleuze and Guattari who in the 1980’s developed a new model of written organization to replace the print-based world, using a rhizome as the visual model.  Murray writes:   “The potato root system has no beginning, no end, and grows outward and inward at the same time. It forms a pattern familiar to computer scientist: a network with discreet interconnecting nodes.  Here was a way of constructing something new.  The humanist project of shredding culture had found a radical new pattern of meaning, a root system that offered a metaphor of growth and connection rather than rot and disassembly.” Am I rotting my brain by exploring the Google links and hypertexts related to my queries, or developing a deeper more complex understanding of the subject mater?  Much like the potato root, I was expanding, growing and becoming more connected in my knowledge base.
                  While it may be argued that social digital media sites such as facebook and twitter do nothing to expand the roots of ones level of knowledge, they do, in fact, expand and strengthen our connections to others.  In his introduction to the book “The Best Technology of 2009”, and in reference to the constant skimming of the internet, Steven Johnson writes: “The benefits of this new consciousness go far beyond skimming, of course, especially when you consider that many of the distractions are not tantalizing hyperlinks, but other human beings!” Would I have been better off holing myself up in my study room this weekend with no connection to the members of my community or my family?  I would argue not.  I was connecting with real people in real time, listening to their arguments and once again, broadening my own thinking.
                  One disadvantage to digital interruptions is the amount of time they take up.  If I had shut off my phone and internet access, using my computer only for word processing, I would have undoubtedly completed all of my assignments much faster, possibly allowing me the time to attend a few of the baseball games. Would I have learned as much? No.  My knowledge would have been limited to the textbook provided information alone, some of which was unclear to me.  Would I have even been aware of the crisis unfolding in my community?   Possibly, but my exposure would have been limited to the few I came into contact with at the baseball games, not the news media coverage, or the thoughts and feelings of my community at large.
                  As a Sociology major, I am compelled to look at digital technology and it’s role in interrupting higher thinking through the lens of the Functionalist approach.  This theory is also represented in the world of Psychology as the Gestalt Theory.  Both disciplines define this theory or approach, as “the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.”  Each individual hyperlink, when looked upon as one unrelated text, provides nothing but a distraction.  However when applied to as part of a larger, more complicated thought process, hyperlinks promote learning and further understanding.  The same can be said for texts, and social media.  One tweet about an event or occurrence does not an opinion form. Several texts or status updates can provide us with a glimpse of the thoughts and feelings of a group at large.
                  As this weekend comes to a close, I am tired, but in a good sort of way.  I have completed all of my assignments, and in several cases took my learning to the next level via hyperlinks, all while staying in tune to the happenings of my friends and community.  Facebook and textbook working together?  It turns out it’s a good thing after all.  Please just don’t tell my kids! 


  1. Thanks for the thoughts Amy. My Sam observed in his community college classes that those students who complained the most that they weren't being taught the material (and their test results agreed) where the kids who were texting throughout class.
    I know I am easily distracted, especially by the social media, and have had to learn to be disciplined not to tweet at work (other than lunch break), and frequently I have to NOT plug in my laptop to get things done in the office.
    When I was in boarding high school we were not allowed to have a tv in our rooms and we had supervised evening study time. In college I went wild with no supervision (and yes, I had a tv AND vcr (a rarity in those days). Now kids are wired to the hilt with a smart phone. It will be interesting to see if there are any long term effects on the minds of those in middle and high school now in how they are able to comprehend and test.

  2. I'm guilty. I'm reading this instead of working on my report cards.

  3. and here I sit reading your blog instead of doing my chores. Time to motivate away from the computer and get the shopping done so we can eat and have T.P. in the house again!

  4. My two perspectives: I often use these breaks when I'm having writer's block or as a reward for finishing a segment of something I don't want to be doing. These are legitimate uses. On the other hand, as a professor, I HATE when I know my students are "interrupting" their attention that either should be focused on my lectures or should be given to their fellow students during class exercises. In sum, much like everything else in life, there's a proper time & proper quantity for digital media interruptions - in my opinion.

  5. Great post Amy! For the stay at home part time working mom, that is why I don't answer my phone while I am working and try (albeit not always with success) to have only my work email open.