“This Change Isn’t Minor, and It Isn’t Optional”: Becoming Multi-textual

Several years ago, my co-worker invited me to watch Daniel Simons’ “gorilla basketball” clip that Rheingold references in his book NetSmart (p. 45), a clip on selective attention that asks viewers to count the number of passes between basketball players. I watched the brief clip and didn’t noticed the gorilla. I was intent on the task I was given; I was selective with my attention. The same co-worker uses this clip in her College Success course to illustrate how we can tune into and out of the items we deem most important.


Gorilla Basketball, courtesy of https://gorillabasketballvideoaln.wordpress.com/

We’re Being Augmented, not Damaged

The thesis of Rheingold’s first three chapters from NetSmart is that we can train and improve our attention, a task that will be necessary to thrive in this technology-drenched era. As someone who practices yoga regularly, I was eager to read more about how paying attention to my breath (something we do all the time in yoga) could help me  hone my attention even more. I also felt validated to read about “email apnea” because it’s something I have seen my husband do when answering work email from home; he momentarily stops breathing (p. 45). Mostly though, I was heartened to read that rather than harming us, digital media could simply be augmenting us (p. 40). The past several weeks’ readings have made me worried, but Rheingold’s book offers some concrete steps for us to facilitate the augmentation that is happening to our brains already–hopefully for the better. 

A Digitally Literate Democracy

These chapters offer copious opportunities for noteworthy catch phrases that describe our new world: “volume control,” “attention-deficit culture,” and “artificial sense of constant crisis” (pp. 55, 56, 57). We recognize these symptoms and look wearily at the repercussions they have on our ability to communication and connect. However, what made me the most hopeful was how Rheingold compared digital citizenry to literacy. We are not born readers, and even the great philosophers Socrates and Plato both feared “the written word and its effect on us”, particularly for its loss of control over knowledge (p. 60).


Socrates & Plato

They feared that just because more knowledge would become available to more people that did not mean that the people would understood that knowledge. The owners of that information also lose their ability to translate the knowledge to suit their purposes. We see this today with our plethora of media options, cries of fake news, and echo chamber preferences. We know now that literacy was a democratizing development; I am hopeful that digital literacy will be, too.

Pay Attention: A How-To

We touch on the methods that Rheingold lists in Chapter One in classes I teach, and I’m happy to use the suggested toolkit in future classes and help students understand that there is a connection between mindfulness and improved grades (Hall Study, p. 68).


  1. Be mindful by “paying attention on purpose” (p. 65).
  2. Ask, ‘Have I drifted?” (p. 73)
  3. Meditate (or at least focus on breathing) 10-15 minutes a day (p. 71)
  4. Give yourself meaningful chunks of time to focus on one task, uninterrupted. Turn off technology during that time (p. 75)
  5. Decide what types of tech tools you use at home, where and when, such as “no screens at the dinner table”)

Crap Detection, AKA Information Literacy

In my classes, I ask my students to be skeptical, not cynical. When they do research, I ask them to use a worksheet titled “CRAP,” which is an acronym for currency (how recent), reliability, authority, and purpose/point of view, which is precisely what Rheingold deals with in NetSmart’s Chapter 2. I’m happy to integrate the triangulation technique (find three sources that agree) to their researched assignments as well as some of the websites he recommends: https://www.snopes.com/, FairSpin, and FactCheck.org. He writes, “Information literacy is the answer to growing information pollution” (p. 89). This is a helpful metaphor to use, especially when he frankly asks, “How much work is it to check three links before believing or passing along information” (p. 91). It’s not, Mr. Rheingold. You’re absolutely right.

Participation Points

Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet about the power of introversion, admonishes educators who promote participation points that often go to the loudest students, not the most knowledgeable or most thoughtful. She must be excited by the potential that digital participation has for the quiet kids. Rheingold reminds us that “young people are using digital participation tools for learning and creating” not just socializing (p. 117). Need to learn how to fix your specific brand of toilet? There’s a YouTube video for that. Have a question about the Civil War? Google it. In the scant few decades that the internet has been alive, we have created an unimaginably large database of knowledge, accessible now and for free (mostly).

I’ve taught literature for several years, and it wasn’t until teaching it online that I fully got *almost* all of the students to contribute to the conversations about the texts. It’s entirely too easy to stay quiet in a face-to-face class. It’s pretty easy to let the loud or the smart (or in some cases both) kids who’ve read all the material do all the talking. The participatory culture of the digital world, while scattered and sometimes shallow, allows for instant depth and connectivity. Rather than read an article in the newspaper, drink my coffee, and forget about it, I can read the article, read about the author, click to find out where Azerbaijan is, and understand more fully why there are tensions there.

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Where is azerbaijan? Courtesy of Google Maps

Rheingold ends the chapter with, “Attention literacy is reflection. Crap detection is analytic. Participation is deliberate” (p. 145).  Understanding the intention behind his NetSmarts will help us evolve into this more digital world and become better citizens for it.

Posted on October 5, 2018, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Society, Teaching, Technology, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Amery,

    I’m glad to see more technology companies taking on the responsibility of CRAP detection. I’ve recently noticed ads on CNN for the app SmartNews that promises to combat fake news.

    I looked up SmartNews, and it’s a company that was started in Japan in 2012 and came to the U.S. in 2014. The company has relationships with 300 media brands including USA Today, the Associated Press, and Reuters. The app curates content from 3,000 sources. On its website, it states “News should be impartial, trending and trustworthy. Our algorithms evaluate millions of articles, social signals and human interactions to deliver the top 0.01% of stories that matter most, right now.”

    SmartNews announced last summer it has 10 million active users a month. Besides it’s TV ads, the app’s success may be due to its design. It categorizes new stories using colorful tabs. It also allows users to read content offline.

    I’ve downloaded the app. It’s now on my iPhone along with several other news apps such as Google News, The New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today.

    Thanks for your blog post,


  2. Thanks so much, Angie. I will check out SmartNews and consider sharing it with my students. Perhaps I can incorporate a lesson using it.

  3. Wonderful post that captures Rheingold’s main points and then applies them to your teaching. Other than this course, my schedule this year is all face-to-face after several years of having more online courses and it’s been a struggle to get my 300-level students to discuss any of the readings. Even when I try to group them up with discussion questions to answer in class, they can’t seem to commit to talking to one another. I know cohorts change, but it has been disappointing, especially when I’ve also tried creating some virtual tasks and no one contributed that way either. And the topic is digital humanities! Sigh…I’m hoping the first set of papers proves me wrong and they’re brilliant introverts!

  4. Amery,

    You covered so much from our readings I don’t even know where to begin. I like how you brought in Socrates and Plato, how they feared the written word, and thought that owners would not be able to translate that knowledge to their purposes. This made me think of how much information is on the Internet and how so much of it seems to go unused. When I first started to learn how to build and design websites, I would wait for my coworker to have time to teach me because I felt online guides would be too tricky or advance for me.

    However, after some pushing, I started watching tutorials to build and design websites. Better yet, I found the process to be pretty simple and straightforward after watching some videos.There was tons of information available to me, but I was afraid that I would not be able to translate it to my own purposes. It makes me wonder how many others are afraid to start a task, but assume that they can’t because the information is too complex.

    On another note, Reingold’s note of telling readers to just pay attention to what they are doing is excellent. I have found myself numerous times this week using his advice when I started watching too many YouTube videos, or when I started to spend too much doing my work. I was skeptical of when he brought it up in the book because it seemed so simple, but it really does work and I like that you plan to use it in your future courses.

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