Thinking about thinking about thinking about…

In several of the readings we’ve encountered this semester, we’ve encountered sad stories of parents neglecting children on playgrounds in favor of their smart phones, of adolescents exhausted by the demands of social media, and people who have nearly died from information overload. The theme we are seeing over and over again seems to be that technology – and social media in particular – is a one-way train to the downfall of society. And we are riding it gleefully.

I’ve found myself quite frustration by these doomsayers. Sure, technology has its downsides, but it overall has a net positive if treated properly. The same can be said for other communication technologies that were heralded in their days of harbingers of the end of civilization. For instance, for Socrates, reading itself was a threat to society. In fact, in Net Smart, Howard Rheingold identifies a cycle wherein 1) a technology arises to massively increase communication efficiency, 2) that technology causes an information crisis and panic about the future of society, and 3) humans develop methods to handle the new technology and information it presents (p. 100). This cycle occurred for writing, books, the telegraph, the telephone, etc.

The question then becomes what tools do we need to develop to adjust to the current information crisis? The doomsayers argue that the only solution is an abstinence-only, zero-tolerance policy toward these technologies–quitting them cold turkey. To Rheingold, this is not the answer. “Human agency, not just technology is key,” he argues, “teaching people how to practice more mindful mediated communication seems the most feasible remedy” (p. 56-7).

Rheingold argues that the solution already lies within our own minds: metacognition (thinking about thinking) and mindfulness (paying attention to the way you pay attention) (36). By exercising these skills, we will be able to filter out all but the most essential information and focus our attention productively to complete goals.

Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is so powerful that, according to Rheingold, just thinking about thinking about thinking starts change the neural networks in the brain. It takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity to teach the brain new tricks.

Mindfulness, or paying attention to the way you pay attention, allows us to develop control over our attentiveness such that we actively choose to perform activities relevant to our goals and intentions. It allows us to “attune to the part of [our] information environment that matters most, and tune out what is irrelevant, at least for the purpose of [our goals” (p. 42-3).

Getting started, Rheingold says, is as simple as breathing. Seriously, the first step in creating attention awareness is to pay attention to breathing (p. 45). From this humble starting point, “attention processes… can be strengthened through exercise” (p. 62). He argues that small steps, repeated at regular intervals become habit–in other words, repetition of mindful cognitive tasks start shaping the brain’s neural networks in ways we want. By the end of all this, we become capable of focusing only on information that helps us reach our goals, while filtering out all of the other “noise” that distracts us away from our intentions.

I am personally quite familiar with mindfulness. I’m still an amateur, but I have applied it to my life in a number of ways, including improving my eating and spending habits. I am more aware of my posture, and I even try to be mindful of the way I walk–I am trying to consciously correct a slight limp that I didn’t even notice I had until I started paying attention.

Mindfulness is a very powerful tool that enables you to make conscious decisions rather than moving through life on “autopilot.” However, after reading these chapters of Net Smart, I would like to pursue mindfulness further, perhaps even beginning meditation. I have a very active (i.e., disruptive) mind, and I would like to develop tools to quiet it or, even better, harness that activity to complete goals.

Posted on October 23, 2016, in Literacy, Social Media and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I agree that many of the readings have taken a particularly negative view toward technology and social media. When reading Turkle’s “Alone Together” I was constantly thinking to myself (as you have mentioned in this post), “yeah… BUT those thoughts and insecurities could be applied to almost any new technology”. Additionally, I felt that Turkle’s argument was less accurate because of her use of adolescents. I understand her point in doing so – that is the generation who has not known a life outside of these technologies and media, but many of the arguments she made in regards to the way adolescents used the media and felt about it and themselves (I felt) were more because of the nature of adolescence and less because of the technologies themselves. Adolescence has always been a time of self-discovery and insecurity, with or without the current technologies. They simply experience it in a different way now, but those feelings and experimentation would be there either way. I don’t think it’s fair to blame it on social media. As I said in my midterm, the point is to know when the right and appropriate time is to utilize the tools we now have such access to. That’s what I loved about “Net Smart”, Rheingold echoed my feelings on the benefits of social media and technology, while emphasizing that there is a proper use for them.

    • I honestly think that hitting overload to the point of “quitting” social media will benefit adolescents in the long run. They’re learning much earlier on about overload and how to mitigate it. I think part of the reason we see parents struggling with it is exactly because they didn’t grow up with the technology, so they never had the chance to develop coping mechanisms at a young age.

      I do think Turkle did have some good points. I agreed with her assertion that adolescents are no longer every truly “away” from their parents, nor are they ever totally alone–and I think both are a detriment to developing independence. I’m sure they will be fine, but they’ll be different from previous generations (which, really, can be said about any generation).

      I like Net Smart because although Rheingold does say that technology is, or could be, a problem, but rather than cry doom, he offers actionable solutions.

  2. I also enjoyed reading and re-reading the section on metacognition and mindful attention. I first learned about meta cognition as an educat ion student. There are many ways that meta cognition can be used to teach about paying attention to your mind and thoughts.

    What was your reaction to teaching meditation to students so that could learn to slow down their thoughts? I thought it was extraordinarily helpful, but sad that this was necessary due to the mass amounts of distraction’s children are exposed to everyday. Maybe adults should adopt this practice everyday as well during our hectic schedules and constant distractions with mobile devices.

    • It made absolute sense to teach meditation to students–even if there was less information glut. I actually had an elective in high school that was just an hour of quiet time. The expectation was to draw or nap or whatever, and it was great to just chill out for a while. But guided meditation would have been even better. Kids’ minds are so elastic that it would take them so much less effort for much more payoff.

  3. Jessica, I agree that certain Doomsday sentiments need to be quashed, and quickly. Extolling the virtues of metacognition and mindfullness on the other hand, puts the responsibility squarely in the hands of the user: exactly where it always needs to be.

    Our technology enhanced culture has definite benefits and upsides that need to be taken into account whatever anyone says about the toll it takes on personal relationships, cognitive development, or attention span. We must, as always, be more discerning in our choices.

    The problem becomes interacting with other people who have different measuring sticks for usage.

    • It’s all about balance. There are risks of technology just as there are benefits. The challenge comes at striking the happy medium where you get as much of the benefits as you can while minimizing the risks. In my cybersecurity program we say that by and large, people will do the right thing, but you have to empower them to do so. In other words, instead of telling people to stop using technology because the end of the world is coming, give them ways to start using it correctly. For instance, improved speech recognition allows people to text without taking their eyes of the road.

      While Turkle was doomsaying (and some of her points were valid), Rheingold is actually empowering.

  4. I really like your cartoon that depicts the difference between mind full and mindful. I agree with Rheingold, “teaching people how to practice more mindful mediated communication seems the most feasible remedy.” The doomsayers have been around forever and will continue to fear technology. That’s not to say there isn’t a sliver of truth in what they fear, but it’s all in how we, as a society, react to the technology. Staying alert to the changes that new technology brings in thought and actions will help us recognize the potential for good and harm. Then, it’s up to us.

    I was upset by the stories of kids complaining that their parents neglected them for social media. However, I don’t know how accurate it would be to think those parents would be great and attentive parents if they didn’t have social media. How many times have we heard that parents are workaholics, or that they never have time for their kids, they’re never home, they always watch TV, etc.

    • As I mentioned to the others, the problem with the doomsayers is they moan and have vapors, but rarely do they ever bother a solution. One of my biggest pet peeves is actually people who complain, yet make no effort to solve their problem.

      I suspect there are parents who would be bad parents regardless of social media. And there are probably parents who would be great parents, but social media gets in the way. I think the biggest issue with Turkle’s portrayal is that she gives the impression that it’s all parents who are too glued to their phones to parent properly. In reality, I’m sure there are some, but I doubt it’s a very large percentage. Obviously, I have no data to support that, the fact that there were no mentions of stellar parents who never use their phones at dinner is a little suspect. Sob stories sell books, however, so I get it.

      • I agree. I wonder what the numbers were. How many kids said their parents don’t choose social media over time with them vs. how many kids said they do. It’s not any different than stories of parents spending too much time doing anything that takes them away from their kids – or going out rather than staying home with kids. There are going to be bad parent and bad parent moments regardless of social media. The upside of a parent on social media is they can monitor what their kids are doing on social media (to an extent). I’ve heard kids say that Facebook is for old people and they’ve all switched to SnapChat or Tumbler or whatever new thing is out there.

  5. I’m blown away by that image you used…Mind Full or Mindful? That happened to cross my mind several times today as I ran errands for work. I work for a yoga studio that teaches meditation and mindfulness. My boss, the CEO, is stretched really thin right now (I’m her only staff person and it’s a start up) and she mentioned today she isn’t able to live her studio’s philosophy because she’s always doing so much at once. I started thinking about creating a social media post for our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram about becoming less “Mind Full” and becoming more “Mindful” by taking our meditation classes. So I want people to be more mindful and meditative, yet I found myself stressing about creating that campaign on top of the other thousand things I have to do and the mind just keeps going and going.

    I read at one point that the average American consumes the same amount of information per day as something like 12 newspapers or something like that. According to Social Times, “Studies have shown that your typical social media user consumes 285 pieces of content daily, which equates to an eye-opening 54,000 words, and, for the truly active, as many as 1,000 clickable links” (2013). That is CRAZY. I bet it’s even more now as we move towards 2017. Instagram is more popular, Snapchat is a thing, so on and so forth. I’ve been on Facebook for only a few weeks now and I find my mind full of information more so than it ever was before. It’s stressful.

    I agree with you that social media can definitely be a positive. It’s good for staying connected, it’s great for business, and can just be fun. But I find that limiting my daily intake is absolutely necessary for my health and happiness. Now that my job revolves around technology, it’s more necessary than ever.

  6. It’s bad to neglect children. I’ve read stories about Korean parents who forget about their children while playing StarCraft.

    I wonder how parents now will prioritize their relationships with their children. It’s gotta be hard to be a kid getting attention from a parent. I have a hard trying to get attention from friends and potential friends because they are tied up with their friends. I know I can text them, but it isn’t the same as speaking them in person.

    I know that we need to be mindful in our conversation, however we can’t always be perfect in our styles of communication. Maybe if we can acknowledge this and say we are working on this would at least give us the opportunity to be the human beings we really are.

    • The problem with neglect is that it’s one of those terms that’s thrown around pretty willy nilly these days–much like abuse. Parents are getting called child abusers and getting visits from Child Services for simply letting their kids walk to school. Or pet owners called “abusers” for putting booties on their dogs’ feet (which is actually essential in some climates where the pavement burns or freezes paws, with the toxic addition of road salt in the latter situation). This is how helicopter parenting happens.

      Yet we’re hearing about the proliferation of helicopter parenting at the same time we’re hearing about all these kids being neglected by their Facebooking parents. So which is it?

      Neglect is leaving your kid (or dog) in a car on a hot day. Neglect isn’t looking at your smart phone for a few minutes while your kid plays with other kids at the park.

      Now I’m not saying neglect doesn’t happen. And I’m definitely not saying it’s not tragic when it does. (I’m a former Starcraft player, and yes I heard about the Korean parents–but that’s not all Korean parents, nor is it the fault of the game.) But we’re only seeing one side of the story for a VERY small sample size in Turkle’s study–and there’s a lot of confirmation bias happening here.

      Turkle also argued that teens are no longer truly ever “away” from their parents–and expressed concerns about their ability to develop independence. Again, this seems like a bit of a contradiction.

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