Struggling to Pay Attention

A week or so ago, during a faculty meeting, a teacher brought up the issue of students and technology and the way in which the presence of technology was keeping students from doing the thoughtful work they needed to be doing in class. This was more than a “kids these days” complaint.  It was a thoughtful expression of a real and growing concern and initiated a conversation about how to address it.  But we didn’t have any solid answers because we all had a sense that the problem was much bigger than something happening in the classroom.  It’s happening all around us. Our bigger question was, how do we teach in a world where the very knowledge we need to access resides in space that is distracting?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Those of us who have been active in social media for a long time have often been called on to defend or explain our affection for it and our reliance on it. I’ve been worried about my own sometimes mindless use of Facebook especially in the last few months.  And I often ask myself, is this the best use of my time right now? Sometimes the answer is yes, but more often it’s not.

I wrote enthusiastically about social media here. I’m still generally enthusiastic about social media.  Many of the people I’m connected to are smart and thoughtful people and they post smart and thoughtful things to their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Many are still blogging fairly regularly. Through them, I find resources, interesting articles and often, thoughtful conversation. However, I know I could be reading and writing in longer form, perhaps seeking out more face-to-face opportunities or achieving other things.

Post-election, a renewed skepticism about the value of social media platforms has surfaced, a skepticism that is tempered with downright disdain. Regardless of where people sit on the political spectrum, there is renewed worry that technology is controlling more of our lives than we had realized, and that maybe, just maybe, we should really look into this more.

This article in the Guardian and Bryan Alexander’s commentary on it shed light on the inner circle struggles among engineers who are creating the very technology feedback loops that keep us scrolling through our Facebook feeds instead of talking to our kids.  Many are trying to put themselves and their families on technology diets, trying to keep themselves and others from becoming addicted or succumbing to their existing addiction.  I’ll admit to trying some of these strategies myself, trying apps that limit my time on Facebook or keep me from going there in the first place.

I think the deeper concern raised by the article is the fact that the ad-driven nature of much of our technological infrastructure means that companies must manipulate our psychological responses in ways that keep us coming back to them for the next “fix.” This kind of manipulation is almost as old as advertising itself, but we now know so much more about how the brain works that manipulation of it is super sophisticated and largely works. Even if you know you’re being manipulated, it can be hard to fight against except by opting out completely.

I don’t have answers.  I feel the need to be connected via social media because that’s where my community is. It’s where I learn and grow.  But I do get distracted there and I try to be mindful about that. I try to distinguish between when I’m using social media for work and when I’m using it as down time.  And I try to think about whether I could be doing something better with my down time, like reading a book. The article suggests that government regulation might be coming. What that regulation could do, I don’t know, but I do think the conversation about the role of social media and technology in our society has gotten bigger, more complex, and more urgent.