- Oct 2017
For my annotations, I preferred to focus on three main themes in Rheingold's 'Net Smart'.
Distraction and how to address it.
The history of disruptive media and its role in Western culture
The epidemic of media stratification; how the Internet has amplified how we organize and surround ourselves with sources that confirm our opinions and biases. This theme is central in my discussion of the article 'How Terrorists Recruit Online (and how to stop it).
Dewey and Lippmann had a well-documented public feud over the role of citizens in democracy.
Here are two articles a about their frequent debates:
Dewey, unlike Lippmann, believed in the underlying principle that humans were capable of discernment and if they were taught the skills to correctly identify inaccurate media sources, then we would have better journalism because citizens demanded it. This theme of human agency in media is a dominant one throughout this section.
meditation in the classroom
This study conducted by four psychologists of three different Italian Universities shows the effects of mindfulness meditation on 7 and 8 year olds in Italian primary school. Here's what they say:
we found a specific positive effect of the mindfulness-meditation training in reducing attention problems and also positive effects of both trainings in reducing children’s internalizing problems. However, subjectively, no child in either group reported less depressive symptoms after the trainings. The findings were interpreted as suggestive of a positive effect of mindfulness-meditation on several children’s psychological well-being dimensions and were also discussed in light of the discrepancy between teacher and children’s reports.
The study was shown to, "improve children's cognitive, emotional, and social abilities...", particularly with children who had a healthy mental state.
"What we're experiencing," says Carr, "is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest."
Rheingold includes a large swath of Nicholas Carr's quotes on this page and next, which I'm not sure is helping his larger point. I happen to agree with some of Carr's arguments including this one. While I do believe its overstated, I think that his point that with there being so much content just 'out there' on the Internet, its hard to wade through the sludge for correct information, particularly if you don't have well-developed digital literacy skills.
This is another area where media stratification comes into play. The Internet has exacerbated the issue of confirmation bias in current events, because of its democratized nature. Everyone can publish content on the web, and because of that then anyone can find a source that aligns perfectly with their beliefs and biases, whether they're grounded in fact or not.
This is a huge contributor to the rise of the alt-right over the past year and a half. The publication of conspiracy theories, of abhorrent racist content, of confederate rage that make up alt-right circles on the Internet was a major news story during America's most recent election. Carr's point about the Internet forcing us to become 'hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest' means that people naturally flock to sources that confirm biases they already hold.
The fact is that this invention will produce for-getfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimu-lus of external marks that are alien to themselves.
Again, the theme of people fearing the potential consequences of disruptive media that has become absolutely essential to the flow of modern day life. This quote from Plato demonstrates that even the wisest among us sometimes can't see past their own nose. Yes, Plato correctly predicted that writing and literacy would lead to a decrease in memorization and a de-emphasis on the intellectual oral tradition. But if not for disruptive media, we would all be lounging in the Athenian agora like Plato, believing the sun revolved around the Earth.
Often times, the zenith of disruptive media brings with it exaggerated hysteria over the potential ill-effects of what it will do to our current forms of media. But these doomsday predictions never seem to come to pass. The television didn't kill the radio. Email didn't kill face-to-face human interaction, and neither did the telephone. Writing didn't kill knowledge. Many of these Luddites forget human agency, the ability of humans to balance media consumption and manage the emerging new forms of media with classic forms.
Rheingold begins this section called '(Using) the Internet Makes Us Stupid (or Not)' in order to promote restraint and emphasize the forgotten element in all of these negative predictions for disruptive media: choice.
, I'll zoom in on the long debate that sociologists have had about the effects of trains, telephones, or televi-sions on the quality of human social connection in large social groups, or "society" in the aggregate.
One of Rheingold’s central rhetorical devices for building ethos in this introductory chapter is to highlight the now-laughable negative reactions to technology that has become irreplaceable to our daily lives. This article from Vaughn Bell in Slate is useful in amplifying Rheingold’s point, that the new digital forms of media are just the latest in a long tradition of disruptive media sources. Bell writes, “Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain.”.In it, he mentions a long litany of naysayers against technologies like the printing press, the radio, and the television. Obviously all of these technologies have fostered human progress more than it has hindered it. I think this is the position Rheingold would take as well, that cries that the Internet is making us dumb or that social media is ruining our politics are huge overreactions to small kinks in a technology that’s benefits vastly outweigh its costs.
Is Google Making Us Stupid? - the Atlantic (this is an article that Rheingold references several times) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
Did Social Media Ruin Election 2016? - NPR http://www.npr.org/2016/11/08/500686320/did-social-media-ruin-election-2016
Unproductive for the goal oriented • Unhealthy for everybody • Fatal for a growing number • Addictive for some • An invitation to bad parenting • Sodally alienating • A cause for a dangerous loss of solitude
This list of potential consequences of media-related distraction that Rheingold gives us also happen to create conditions for how ISIS recruits online, according to this Brookings article
Digital isolation is a key component in the ‘Discovery’ phase of terrorist recruitment that J.M. Berger lays out and also identified as a consequence in Rheingold’s assessment. Now of course, it’s not as if every time you get distracted from your homework and take a BuzzFeed quiz you’re a target for terrorist recruitment. It requires a concerted effort to learn more about ISIS in order for the organization to pick up on a recruit’s interest. The idea is that the more distracted you become by delving into ISIS-friendly spaces on the Internet, the more you become a potential target of ISIS recruiters. This is also an example of media stratification. The way that terrorists radicalize targets is by surrounding them with a digital community in the ‘Create micro-community’ stage of recruitment, further segregating the potential recruit into pro-ISIS circles. This experience of ISIS recruitment shows the extremes of media-triggered distraction.
- Sep 2017
This is the video of the test that was described, along with the essay ‘Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events’ describing the phenomenon, written by two Harvard psychology researchers David Simon and Christopher Charibus. When the viewers focus on the white team passing the basketball, they experience both change blindness and inattentional blindness. They define change blindness as the lack of detection of large changes in objects or scenes and inattentional blindness as paying so little attention to an object that you cease to notice it entirely.
Their conclusion is that, “we perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention.”, and without us committing our sustained focused attention on a specific object or event (like looking for a moonwalking gorilla in the middle of a basketball game), then we fail to register it entirely.
This demonstrates the incredible power of distraction. When we are distracted, not only do we find it more difficult to quickly switch back to the task we were doing previously, but by severing our sustained focus on something to check the new notification on our iPhone, we potentially miss really obvious connections. All the more reason to “pay attention to attention”, as Rheingold says.
When you are online, how often do you control your own focus-and how frequently do you allow it to be captured by peripheral stimuli?
As Rheingold points out in the paragraph below, some distraction is ingrained in evolutionary human instinct, like, "jumping at a loud noise or applying the brakes at the sight of a dog in the road...". But this distraction is not what he describes as 'peripheral stimuli'. This stimulus is rooted not in productivity nor rest, but in distraction. A cell phone buzz from a Twitter like or a SnapChat eagerly waiting to be responded to, is a constant sap on our attention.
As he points out later, the human brain can only hold seven (give or take two) thoughts at one time. The near-constant presence of our smartphones and digital devices represent distraction that disrupts our focus on productive tasks. Even as I type this annotation, I'm also thinking about the playlist I'm listening to on Spotify and the three new notifications from GroupMe awaiting my attention. Rheingold takes the view that a smartphone is an incredibly powerful and useful tool, but just like any tool, there's a proper way to use it optimally. This optimization of digital tools includes not just the notification settings of the actual device to manage distraction, but also human agency. Putting your device in another room, or turning it off for an hour is one way we can improve our attention. Mindfulness and equipping a digital mindset is another. Rheingold's overarching goal in 'Net Smart' is to acknowledge the benefits of the Internet age and improve our digital lives without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
e development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.
This quote is how Rheingold introduces one of his central themes: distraction, its evolving role in our constantly connected world, and how to deal with it productively.
But this quote also provides an avenue to a topic that Rheingold briefly touches on later that I think is at the core of the intersection of our current political and digital discussions. That is, what is the impact of media stratification on our society? In all manner of our current dialogues, from the 2016 election, to opinions on climate change, even to the strategies of 21st century terrorist recruitment, how do we as digital citizens fight through the noise of partisan, unaccredited content to find truth? In many instances, especially in cases where someone may not possess the digital skills necessary to adequately judge the veracity of sources, we end up falling into traps of only trusting media outlets that confirm the opinions we already believe to be true. Huxley, and by extension Rheingold, points to humanity's bent towards distraction as the main source of this media stratification and increasing digital isolation into circles that continually reinforce whatever beliefs are held up as true.
Dehanene is a professor at the College de France where he specializes in cognitive psychology. He received his bachelor's degree in Mathematics, completed a PhD in cognitive psychology, and conducted post-Doc research in the field of nueronal modelling studies -- understanding how the brain processes information.
In the video below, Dehaene gives a talk about how the brain learns to read and learn, particularly with early childhood education.