Friday, May 02, 2014

Drive By Learning

For a number of years now, pundits have remarked on the diminishing attention span of our culture, driven, it is averred, by the visual media: TV, film, MTV, TV commercials, TV news with its terse news bites, and so on. Now, however, some are also thinking about a diminishment in our ability to think long or deeply about anything.

Writers like Nicholas Carr, whose article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" suggests this phenomenon with concern, and David Weinberger, whose book, Too Big to Know, suggests that long, deep thinking provided by reading a book is pretty much a historical artifact, made me think that learning itself (such as the university experience) is tracking along these lines.

We used to be able to sit down with a lengthy book and read it carefully and thoughtfully. That last sentence probably lets you know how old I am, for many of today's college students won't know what I'm talking about. And that's the problem. Now, and this is true of me, too, if we attempt to engage a lengthy book or argument, a little voice (or at least, a sense of urgency) starts to irritate us with, "There are many other things to do today. You don't have time for this. Hurry and get the gist. Skim. Glance. Skip. Skirt. Read the summary."

The fact that we can surf from one place on the Web to another in just the blink of an eye (or if you have a crummy Internet connection, in just minutes), turns us into information channel-surfers. Get an answer fast and move on. But this is not good.

If we become mere information skimmers, knowledge hoppers, data browsers, staccato thinkers, unable to read, understand, and process an extended argument, we are likely to be much more open to the information confidence men and women, who know very well how to select details, slant the facts, omit what works against them and double up on what suits their case. We will be much, much more vulnerable to emotional appeals because the emotions can be engaged quickly and with fewer words that are required to engage the brain deeply

And consider:

  • Catching the gist of an idea is not the same as understanding it.
  • Skimmers of gist are able to pay attention only to denotation--the obvious meaning of the words used. But those who create the message are able to exploit connotation--the emotional and sometimes judgmental meaning of words, thus manipulating the reader unaware.
  • Deep thinking requires deep reading.
  • Good decision making must be thoughtful and circumspect, and that cannot be accomplished by soda straw quick sipping off the Web.

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