Thinking in the digital age

resized_9781857885491_224_297_FitSquare‘We are getting both smarter AND more stupid at the same time. We are getting better at thinking quickly but worse at thinking things through properly. We are good at the fast and thin but bad at the slow and deep.’ A quote from a review for ‘Future Minds’ by Richard Watson from publishers Allen and Unwin

Google-eyed, multitasking mayhem, digital immortality, sampling generation, mentally agile but culturally ignorant, jumping around like caffeinated rabbits – these are some of the concepts and concerns raised in this book, as the author considers what life is like for the generation which has never experienced life without computers.

Watson questions the value of multi-tasking, pointing to a need for balance in our lives. He states that ‘We can do more than one thing at once, but we rarely do them well.’ (p. 6) We can find lots of information, are often incapable of ignoring irrelevant information, and the flood of information forces our thinking to become shallow. Thus, he argues that multi-tasking may harm thinking ability.

Also, the consequent demise of the attention span of the ‘net generation’ (or screenagers) means that students now demand shortened versions of texts, with interactivity and may find it hard to deal with difficult texts. Is this a result of practised shallow thinking? Will the students of the future even be able to ‘get’ the hard texts like Shakespeare, if  ‘we (they) have become too soft and our brains and bodies are accepting mush’? (p.38) Will the harder concepts be beyond the level of thinking our students are now practising? Should hard books be compulsory?

The book also spends a fair bit of time discussing the hurriedness of the digital life and its impact on our thinking. When surveying when and where people do their deepest thinking, a range of different places were suggested, though digital technology was hardly mentioned at all. Locations included:

  • alone
  • in bed
  • in the shower
  • in the car
  • when I’m reading a book/magazine/newspaper
  • outside
  • when I’m jogging/running

In a similar conversation with our Writers’ Group recently, students talked of inspiration 1). after a dream, 2). while doodling (in another language) and 3). taking themselves outside of the real world. While recognising the benefits of using technology to then share and communicate ideas, much of ‘the inital spark (always) came when people were disconnected’. (p. 96) 

Taking the time to ponder, either from a room with a view, or even outdoors, and joining the movement for slow thinking and single tasking, is going to become even more valuable in the future. Watson even suggests a need for all of us to reap the benefits of boredom and spend a whole day doing nothing!’ No conversation, no telephone calls, no email, no instant messaging….(p149) Imagine that! (Even Bill Gates escapes for weeks of solitude each year…)

Leading on from this, consider the value of a physical book in contrast with online reading which lies very much in its tactile nature. It is often a more relaxed process – not one where we jump around foraging for facts, but one where we are more likely to take the time to reflect and imagine.

There is much to consider in the book, ‘Future Minds’. Watson concludes:

‘Deep thinking is important because it changes things. It makes the world  better place. But there is another reason why it matters. Deep thinking is personally fulfilling.’ (p. 160)

Don’t we owe that to (our students and) ourselves?

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