Attention! Multitasking, Mindfulness, and Social Reading

Much has been made of digital culture, of the innovations—and rapidity of those innovations—related to the devices, platforms, applications, and approaches that make up the apparatus of that culture. We are a people of the device these days, working from wherever we are on our phones, our laptops, our tablets. The cloud is the new office. Yet, in her keynote at Digital Pedagogy Lab – Prince Edward Island, blogger and activist Audrey Watters asserted that, in fact, adoption of digital technologies has been slower than the adoption of the technologies upon which it’s built.

Key to her argument is that almost all of the digital has analogues in the analog. We were using telephones before we were using video chat; we were sitting in front of TV screens long before we were streaming movies on our computers.

If nothing else, it’s not so easy to pinpoint the exact moment, the exact year when a new technology came into being. There often are competing claims as to who invented a technology and when, for example, and there are early prototypes that may or may not “count” … Alexander Graham Bell made his famous telephone call to his assistant in 1876. Guglielmo Marconi did file his patent for radio in 1897. John Logie Baird demonstrated a working television system in 1926. The MITS Altair 8800, an early personal computer that came as a kit you had to assemble, was released in 1975 … And the Internet? The first ARPANET link was established between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute in 1969. The Internet was not invented in 1991.

Most of what we call “innovative” today can be seen as a natural evolution of technologies and practices that flourished previously.

But perhaps one thing stands out as unlike our other technologies: the sheer glut of information and distraction that’s readily available every time we turn to our computers, our phones, and now our watches. The Internet can feel like the Las Vegas strip, flashing bright lights and advertisements, inviting us to shop, spend (or waste) time, and over-stimulating our eyes, ears, and brains.

In the first chapter of his book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold offers that “The future of digital culture—yours, mine, and ours—depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives” (1). And,

Digital literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. (3)

In other words, learning to use digital media—in general ways (like, how do you do a Google search?) and in ways more specific (like, how do you use for annotation?)—can help us feel empowered, and less distracted or overwhelmed, when we find ourselves on the Internet.

When Rheingold refers to digital literacies, he’s pointing at the skills it takes to navigate the digital. But for him, these skills are less about how to use specific tools and more about mindful, intentional engagement with the endless Las Vegas strip of the world wide web. How do we stay on course? How do we evaluate the information we come across? How do we engage, and—just as important—how do we disengage? Rheingold’s approach is to develop a “crap detection” apparatus that can help us filter, sift, and sort the signal from the noise.

Almost as counterpoint, Cathy Davidson writes in her book, Now You See It, that

everything we’ve learned about how to pay attention means that we’ve been missing everything else … It’s not easy for us rational, competent, confident types to admit that the very key to our success—our ability to pinpoint a problem and solve it, an achievement honed in all those years in school and beyond—may be exactly what limits us … No one ever told us that our way of seeing excluded everything else. (2-3)

Davidson’s perspective is that multitasking, seeing and compartmentalizing what we see—storing and engaging with information productively—is natural for the human brain; and in this way, the Internet is less an overwhelming innovation and instead more familiar territory. She asserts that what we pay attention to changes how we think and who we are.

Rheingold and Davidson are not actually in conflict. For each, the Internet is a medium ripe with potential for participation, collaboration, research. Rheingold asks us to pay attention to what we pay attention to, and Davidson celebrates that we can pay attention to multiple things at once (and that we already always are).

What does this have to do with digital annotation? Imagine a situation where you have more than one book you’re reading at a time. Even if this is not your usual habit, it was certainly the norm when you were a student. As a student, it’s likely you highlighted and wrote in your books (or took notes on the side) in order to process your thinking while you read. This habit helped you take exams, write research papers, and engage in class discussions.

Likewise, digital annotation can serve as a processing mechanism for the Internet. By taking notes on web sites, by participating in communities of annotation, we can begin to make sense out of the nonsense, to hear the signal behind the noise. Annotation can slow us down and allow us to more deeply connect with the otherwise overwhelming Web. Annotating the sites we read (including this one) is an act of mindful engagement, and allows us to store and engage with information in ways that can help mature our thinking—as much about the information we find on the Internet as about the Internet itself.

To Respond:

Please feel free to respond to this post by annotating it using Be sure to join the MiddAnnotate group and select that group before beginning your annotation. (If you have questions about how to do that, take a look at these tutorials.)

In your response to this article, you may want to think about how these ideas resonate for you, or how you might use annotation to deepen engagement with reading in class or with colleagues.

Please also spend some time either on your usual news sites or on a site that’s new to you and annotate there as part of MiddAnnotate. When you annotate using the MiddAnnotate group, everyone in that group will be able to see the articles and sites you’ve annotated right from the group home page.