Volume 42, No. 1
A magazine of forecasts, trends, and ideas about the future.
The Age of Distraction: The Professor or the Processor?
Due to academia’s reliance on technology and the media’s overemphasis on trivia, we are failing to inform future generations about social problems that require critical thinking and interpersonal intelligence.
In the midst of the consumer technology boom of 1999—the diffusion of cell phones, laptops, music players, and gaming consoles—I began work on the concept of the “interpersonal divide,” or the social void that I observed developing as more people came to rely on mediated rather than face-to-face communication.
My warnings went unheeded because of the hoopla over the global village, particularly in academia, which was investing billions of dollars in information technology to facilitate the rapid growth of computing on campus. Since I direct a journalism school, my warnings about corporate profit at the expense of public institutions worried colleagues as well as benefactors and media practitioners.
But the new technologies that now keep us constantly connected also keep us constantly distracted. Educators know that wireless technology has disrupted the classroom, with students browsing (and even buying) online during lectures. However, the new challenge is the pervasive unwillingness to do anything about it. Digital distractions now keep us from addressing the real issues of the day. Each of us daily consumes an average of nine hours of media through myriad technological platforms. As a journalism professor, I’m especially sensitive to this emerging state of constant distraction and its effects on what we watch and read. This is not the Age of Information. This is the Age of Distraction. And distraction in academia is deadly because it undermines critical thinking. That impacts all of us—and the future.
Without critical thinking, we create trivia. We dismantle scientific models and replace them with trendy or wishful ones that are neither transferable nor testable. We have witnessed this with such issues as global warming, worldwide pandemics, and natural selection. Thus, I theorize that standards of higher education have been lowered, not raised, because of new information and consumer technology.
For more than a decade now, university administrators have been touting technology. Apple, Dell, Gateway, and Gates persuaded us to become citizens of a brave new media world that promised to enfranchise and enlighten everyone with universal access. Now, access is omnipresent in our wireless campuses and workplaces. Was that investment well spent? The U.S. Department of Education saw no difference between the performance of kids who used academic software programs for math and reading and those that did not.
In fact, reading scores in 2005 were significantly worse than in 1992, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card. And in math, only 23% of all twelfth graders were proficient. Worse, these sinking scores occurred even though high-school students averaged 360 more classroom hours in 2005 than in 1990.
We need to investigate whether distractions in wireless classrooms might be to blame. Have we compared the scores of school districts investing modestly versus heavily in technology, adjusting for factors like household income, to see if our digital classrooms make any difference?
Assessment no longer is the norm in higher education. Worse, universities are investing in online virtual worlds vended by companies whose proprietary service terms often conflict with disclosure and due process. Costs keep mounting, from bandwidth to security. We have trouble funding real campuses without leasing and staffing digital “land” that is not really there.
The question at issue is who will be the bearer of truth in the digital age—the professor or the processor? To answer that, we first must dispel the myth that technology is a tool, depending on how one uses it. Technology, in fact, is an autonomous system. As philosopher Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), foresaw, technology changes dramatically whatever it touches. Introduce technology into journalism, and henceforth journalism is about technology. Introduce it into the economy, and the stock market henceforth is about technology. Introduce it into education, and education is about technology. Because technology is omnipresent and autonomous, it touches everything and cannot be blamed for anything. Moreover, interfaces and applications come with a motive typically developed by the military or media. The digital device is programmed to do two things (often simultaneously): surveil or sell. Thus, we surveil students on Facebook while students buy off eBay during class.
Digital distraction doesn’t just affect students, but also workers. Who hasn’t known a supervisor or an administrator who writes memos when the staff desires a discussion on a matter of substance? There are supervisors and colleagues who rely on e-mail in situations requiring give-and-take, creating new problems or complicating existing ones. As a result, my research has shown, miscommunication happens as often as successful communication. Typically, we go about business in a false milieu of emergency, which technology exacerbates, because of instantaneous communication.
How to Recover Interpersonal Intelligence
The question is, what can be done? This, too, is part of my research and my lectures across the country on the concept of “interpersonal intelligence,” or knowing when, where, and for what purpose technology is appropriate or inappropriate.
We should inform all incoming college students during their orientation about digital distractions, helping them adapt from the life of a consumer to the life of the mind. We should teach them to explicate the motive of the interface (often making money) rather than simply assume that students will download lectures rather than iTunes. We might assign them to keep journals about the consequences of mobile technology and observe how it is used in their immediate surroundings. Students also can monitor their own use throughout the term, noting any changes in attitude or behavior. They can tally how much they spend on consumer technology, including purchases made during so-called boring periods during a lecture—just one indication of how impulse buying adds debt. Finally, we must remind ourselves that this issue, as nearly all in academia, pivots on student attitudes and actions. Student government, as well as student organizations, can help reclaim the classroom in ways that we have not yet contemplated. Above all, we must deprogram ourselves from technology overuse to realize the benefits and beauties of community.
Given global energy demand that promises to alter mobile lifestyles, today’s students within a decade may have to rely on neighbors in immediate environments more than on avatars in virtual ones. Perhaps we should prepare them to converse with others without ear buds of iPods or ring tones of cell phones.
If we do not recommit to critical thinking in the classroom, the future is in jeopardy. Moreover, if we don’t practice interpersonal intelligence at home, school, and work, we cannot set the standards for the emerging generation. They see us interact using the same technologies but often fail to understand that we had the gift of literary education. We can reflect on issues. We can meditate. We can make independent choices, exercise fairness, avoid snap judgments, examine our own prejudices, listen to viewpoints of others that differ from our own, base our opinions on fact, exercise discretion, acknowledge when we are wrong, and analyze people, topics, and events methodically.
Those are attributes of critical thinking, which many lack in their multitasking digital world. Without these skills, future generations may create Huxley’s brave new world. This comes at a bad time in history, when knowledge of culture, enhanced by interpersonal intelligence, is the key to lasting peace and ignorance thereof could lead to disaster.
PHOTO FROM PHOTOS.COM
COPYRIGHT (C) 2007 World Future Society, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, MD 20814, U.S.A. Telephone 1-656-8274; fax 301-951-0394; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site www.wfs.org. All rights reserved.