Epistemological Implications

19. Textual/Digital Oscillation changes our attention structures. We experience "gaze migration."

Taking the development of approaches to writing as an example:

Since printing:

  • We thought we were:
    • Doing unconscious expression
    • looking through text
    • working toward Correctness
    • know so as to write about it.

  • Instead, we need to learn (or maybe already be involved in):
    • To do self-conscious design
    • to look at text
    • to work toward Effectiveness-Decorum
    • to learn so as to make use.
    • We've done this before--before printing--

These shifts in attention (oscillations/changes in resolution) can be seen across all digital communication forms, not just writing. Increasing our ability to quickly shift is one of the primary features of digital media (it may also be one of the most dangerous).

The Secret World

Learning to See Data
Advanced computing produces waves of abstract digital data that in many cases defy interpretation; there’s no way to discern a meaningful pattern in any intuitive way. To extract some order from this chaos, analysts need to continually reimagine the ways in which they represent their data .

Scientists working in a little-known branch of psychology called perceptual learning have shown that it is possible to fast-forward a person’s gut instincts both in physical fields, like flying an airplane, and more academic ones, like deciphering advanced chemical notation. The idea is to train specific visual skills, usually with computer-game-like modules that require split-second decisions. Over time, a person develops a “good eye” for the material, and with it an ability to extract meaningful patterns instantaneously.

Perceptual learning is such an elementary skill that people forget they have it. It’s what we use as children to make distinctions between similar-looking letters, like U and V, long before we can read. It’s the skill needed to distinguish an A sharp from a B flat (both the notation and the note), or between friendly insurgents and hostiles in a fast-paced video game. By the time we move on to sentences and melodies and more cerebral gaming — “chunking” the information into larger blocks — we’ve forgotten how hard it was to learn all those subtle distinctions in the first place.

“Perceptual learning is self-regulated, in the sense that modification occurs without the necessity of external reinforcement. It is stimulus-oriented, with the goal of extracting and reducing” the information needed.

The modules sharpen the ability to make snap judgments so people “know” what they’re looking at without having to explain why (at least not right away). 
The most important question when dealing with reams of digital data is not whether perceptual skills will be centrally important. The question is when, and in what domain, analysts will be able to build a reliable catalog of digital patterns that provide meaningful “clues” to the underlying reality, whether it’s the effect of a genetic glitch, a low-pressure zone or a drop in the yen. ,

Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class

Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, holding a joint appointment as an arts professor at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program in the Tisch School of the Arts, and as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in the journalism institute. He is a leading voice on the effect technology has had on society — and vice versa — and has been writing extensively about the Internet for nearly a decade.

For years Shirky has allowed his students to bring laptops, tablets and phones into class and use them at will. But he just told students to put them away. He explains why below in a piece that first appeared on medium.com.

By Clay Shirky

I teach theory and practice of social media at New York University, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for Internet censor. But I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision. I have been teaching classes about the Internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect. It’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones. Time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (“Lids down,” in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting; when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from “allowed unless by request” to “banned unless required.”

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.

After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.)

Concept 19 Analysis article:

"How Reading — Not Scanning, Not Scrolling — Opens Your Mind."

Want to learn more?

Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley. The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI. Harvard Business School Pub, 2022.

Matthew Crawford, The world beyond your head : on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Daniel Levitin, The organized mind : thinking straight in the age of information overload, Dutton, 2014.

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