Sunday, November 20, 2016

The social media are rewiring our minds. Are they worth it?

I know the headline looks weird with the verb "are"; but I always try to use "media" as plural with my students, to stress that there are a number of ways reality is mediated to us, usually filtered through a profit motive. 

I digress already and I haven't even begun!

I was surfing the online news, one of the media I use to waste time -- I mean, entertain myself. [Long ago in Latin class,  I learned "entertain" comes from "inter" (between) and "tenere" (to hold).  Hence, whatever holds your attention between times spent on important stuff is "enter-tainment."]

Ironically (since I'm blogging) the article that caught my attention, one of the New York Times' top hits today, was about the risks of social media. It's an op-ed by Cal Newport, a millennial computer scientist. First, he disputes social media's importance to your career. That part isn't something I see a lot of, at least in the teaching ranks -- a felt need to maintain an online brand.

But more importantly for all of us, he discusses how he is not on social media (including blogging) because of what it does to your mind.
Truth in advertising: this really resonates with me since I've stopped surfing Twitter for about a month now; and I quit reading Facebook after the election. And not because of the rampant anger and lack of empathy. I realized I was often thinking of how I would word a pronouncement on Facebook about some issue, or think of some clever saying that people would think funny. So for my own good, I'm trying to regain my mind. Here's Mr. Newport writing:

Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.
Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix. Indeed, part of my own rejection of social media comes from this fear that these services will diminish my ability to concentrate — the skill on which I make my living.

Maybe our field is different from a free-lancing computer scientist and writer. Maybe concentration isn't so important to us. But after reading The Shallows about how modern media are re-wiring us, I can definitely sense how I often feel the urge to be doing something else even when in the midst of something good. I don't like that feeling. So that's why I'm really trying to reduce my use of Twitter and FB.

I'm aware this isn't the world's most encouraging post. But maybe it is something you need to think about today. Read Cal's whole essay HERE. It's not too long :)

Meanwhile I'm off to post about the existence of this post, on Twitter and Facebook. Argh. THEN, I promise, I am going to continue reading a GREAT book, made of actual paper about a guy who lives for a time as a badger, otter (not nice animals as kidlit has taught us, btw), a fox, a deer, and a swift. Be well.

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