Choosing Bombardment

If life today had to be summed up in one word, a suitable choice of word would be ‘bombardment‘.

Bombardment means actions come before questions.  Bombardment means overwhelming detail overtakes information filtering.  Bombardment means that a rush to be first appears more important than sustained concentration and focus.

photo by underminingme

photo by underminingme

Our ability to be connected to so much all the time is both a blessing and a curse. Information overload isn’t a new thing, but it’s becoming a standard for most of us. The bombardment only increases, fuelling an even greater sense of now, Now, NOW. We try to find more time in the day to consume as much as possible. If we can speed up this and gloss over that, we’ll have even more detail to play with. Or that’s the thought, anyway.

Alain de Botton sums up how it’s easy to believe that more and now is best:

“The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties. Something that if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellow human beings.” [Source]

This simply isn’t true. But we’re blinded by the panic that we might miss something game-changing.

No matter how much we immerse ourselves, we’ll never catch everything. The game is changing all the time. You don’t need to be a part of everything in order to cope. You don’t even need to be a part of everything in order to make a difference.

I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea that things like the Internet rewire our brains in a scary way. But a lot of what Nicholas Carr says still makes sense.

Carr is author of “The Shallows“, a book which suggests that we’re losing our ability to concentrate and reflect. We’re training ourselves to skim over detail and accept interruption when we should be focused.

Carr explains why constant bombardment isn’t useful:

“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in Google’s “world of numbers,” but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion.”

Carr’s blog, Rough Type, is also a great resource. Recent posts include those on moderating abundance and how short is the new long.

I believe the ‘always on’ attitude is more a choice (perhaps unconscious) than a dangerous assault on the evolution of our brain. By recognising that it’s okay to switch off the noise, it only takes a bit of getting used to before you can once again distance yourself from bombardment and distraction.

If you’re used to realtime feeds and never-ending information beating at your door, the move away from it won’t be easy. But that’s based on habits, rather than an altered brain that is now unable to deal in any other way.

Steven Connor’s description of the present is a good explanation to why these habits aren’t easy to break:

“The present has become impossible not because it has become more ungraspable or fugitive than ever before, but because it has become more than ever available to itself, just as it has proportionately made other times available to it.” [From “Literature and the Contemporary“, p.15]

The subtitle of Nicholas Carr’s book is “How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember“. But I wouldn’t like to blame the Internet. Steven Connor’s description of the present seems more fitting, because all aspects of now are implicated.

This morning, as I was writing this piece, I had my Twitter feed rumbling past my eyes with regular updates. But I ignored it because I’m used to ignoring it when I’m concentrating on other tasks.

But I did suffer other distractions. Distractions that weren’t Internet related. But they did involve the present. And one distraction, ironically, involved Nicholas Carr.

Typing away, I heard the thud of post as it came through the letterbox. Among the post was the latest copy of the London Review of Books. I decided to have a flick through before continuing to write this piece.

When I got to page 9, imagine my surprise when I spotted a review of “The Shallows”.

My very first thought upon seeing the review was, “Thank goodness I’ve seen this now, before publishing anything. I may find something new that’ll change my point of view.”

My second thought came soon after: “Don’t be daft, Martin. This is exactly the type of distraction that shouldn’t matter. Let it go. Deal with it later. Don’t be distracted by it.”

I was distracted, not by the Internet, but by something posted through my letterbox. By the printed word. By a desire to consume something new, just because I knew it was there and had access to it.

The point is, the book review is bound to bring me new information, even if it doesn’t change my overall opinions. Everything we consume can have that effect.

Life is distracting. But it’s still within your power to reign in your concentration. You have the choice.

And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to read a book review. 🙂

Do you want Web 2.0 help for your educational development?

Brian Kelly, of the great blog UK Web Focus, has recently been reflecting on the different approaches that universities have in using Web 2.0 tools (I’ve commented on the matter there too).

Institutions obviously want to know how they can reach out to students effectively and maintain quality contact.  They want to make sure that the right information and help is there for each and every student.  They would like to succeed in making their lives a little clearer and a little easier.  In the process, they hope that your lives will also become a little easier.

In recent years, it’s obvious that the end-user (i.e. YOU) calls a lot of the shots.  If you’re not publishing blog posts, you’re updating your Facebook profile.  If you’re not Tweeting, you’re sharing photos for the world to view (and possibly even reuse).

No longer is the Internet just a bunch of static views and specific functions.  Now you can create mashups, specialise on YOUR terms, and personalise to your unique and individual brand.

For us as ‘Generation Y’ (as it’s known), we’ve grown up with the Web and all the exciting developments that we take for granted.  It’s led to this:

  1. Students don’t want specifics imposed upon them (who wants – or needs – that now?);
  2. Students don’t appreciate the changes from what they see as a platform for personal and social interaction, to a platform that’s been hijacked by educators and officials as a method of contact and coming closer.

It doesn’t matter that your uni is developing new tools to make your life easier.  Firstly, you may disagree that it helps your individual circumstances.  Secondly, it clouds the boundaries between personal/social life and educational/study life.

With so many Web 2.0 tools out there, the point is that you can pick and choose the services you want/need. It’s mainly up to you, as an individual, to decide what’s important.  That’s an essential component of the Web 2.0 idea.  It’s a fluid, changing space.  To an extent, you help to create the rules.  Once the fluidity is taken away, much of the ‘Web 2.0’ badge may as well be gone.

So the big question is, in what ways can universities achieve a solid base that you – as users – can embrace, but then further develop yourself?

Has your uni helped to give you more control of your educational pursuits online?  Do you make use of social networking and Web 2.0 tools to further your education/career, or do you see these functions as purely a tool for entertainment purposes?

[Update: I’ve found that new research by JISC has found that nearly three quarters of those students who use social networking sites (which is almost every student) use the sites to discuss coursework with others.  Over a quarter do this frequently.  But does this mean that students want a social networking connection to their tutors, or is it better to keep the discussion between peers as another way to do group work…?]