Tag Archives: digital natives

The problem with reading online

Share

Four years ago, I started an MA in music education at the Institute of Education in London. The first module was on the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and included the kind of books that I had been avoiding for 25 years, like Hanslick’s Vom musikalisch Schönen. With philosophy, there are no short cuts, you just have to read in depth and slowly.  Mid-term, I went to Malta for a short break to meet an old friend, and took my books with me, including an anthology of texts on the aesthetics of music in the original German. It’s one of my happiest memories of that time, sitting on my balcony, with nothing but a book, reading slowly, going over the same paragraph again and again until some of it made sense. Four years later, I’m still struggling to understand a lot of the same material now, but the pleasure is deep and immense when you realise that something once unfathomable has sunk in and become understood. It’s like watching a tree grow.

If I hadn’t started that MA, I would never have made the effort to achieve that understanding. Writing essays forces you to do grapple with other people’s thinking and writing, and searching, googling, information gathering is irrelevant to the task. The work is in your head. It’s deep, satisfying, and laborious.

So I knew exactly what Randy Connolly was talking about in his short presentation What’s wrong with online reading? You keep hearing about how wonderful the online world is now, how ‘everything’s on Google’ and children today are amazing, multi-tasking geniuses whose brains (as ‘digital natives’) will develop in ways that we oldies simply can’t understand because we didn’t grow up with the internet. The trouble is, despite the hype, there’s not a lot of evidence that this is really the case. What’s more, online reading is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s causing us to skim and forage without thinking a great deal, and we lose concentration as a result. Connolly’s interest in this subject started, in part, with an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘Given that this is a long article, and given our tendency to skim when things are on a screen, it’s probably best to download and print the article first.

Google can’t make us stupid of  course, that’s up to us. If we don’t take time to think, read carefully and stop scanning and foraging as our only mode of intellection, then we’ll end up – as even some academics admit – unable to read and concentrate in a sustained way. Connolly’s presentation is 141 slides long, but  doesn’t take more than about 5 minutes to go through because each slide has very small amounts of information on – which will ensure that you take it in. It’s well worth taking the time.

And if all this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like all my rants about the myth of multitasking.

 

‘Digital natives’? I don’t buy it

Share

I can’t usually watch more than two minutes of a televised debate without fast forwarding or switching off altogether, but I was completely hooked by all 100 minutes of the ‘Are We Making Monsters?’ debate at ENO with Will Self, Claire Fox, Norman Lebrecht and composer Nico Muhly.

The occasion was a build-up event for  Muhly’s opera Two Boys which premieres at ENO this Friday (24th June). The opera is based around a true story of a teenage stabbing in which the internet, social media and multiple fictional online personalities played a central role.

I found it fascinating precisely because there is so much we can’t know here, and the issues are enormous, deep and wide-ranging. To hear the social, moral & psychological  implications of Grindr discussed by such luminaries is deeply satisfying and funny. Time and again, I found myself switching sides as the speakers (particularly Claire Fox) disagreed with each other with compelling arguments.

There is one argument in all of it that I just don’t buy, however, and that is this conceptual division of individuals into what Will Self initially called the ‘pre-net’ and ‘post-net’ generation. An audience member finally pointed out that it’s more common to speak of ‘internet native’ and ‘internet immigrant’. I’m more accustomed to the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ to describe people who were  born with or without the presence of the internet.

I have never bought this idea as being particularly helpful or true. As a tutor, I spent a lot of my time struggling to teach ‘digital natives’ how to be one, not always with a great deal of success.  I, and some others of my (pre-internet) generation, are at times more tuned in to the possibilities and affordances of the online world than people who grew up with it.   No-one is compelled to use the internet all the time for all the things it can do, and the divisions, as far as I’m concerned, are not along age-lines, but between people who do and people who don’t do stuff with it. People who don’t make use of something like Zotero for academic work – to take one example – don’t do so not because of their age, but because they are lazy and/or they don’t need to do so in order to eat (lucky them). Or it’s simply that they can’t, because they don’t have the money, the broadband access, the hardware and the education. Try telling an impoverished child in an area where the council has closed the library that they’re part of the ‘net generation’.

I sometimes tend to the same kind of pessimism about the internet as Will Self, but in the end, that wouldn’t make any sense. The only reason that I know what he thinks about the subject is because I saw the debate on the web, using my iPhone not as some device to interact with others virtually, but as a small television. The only reason I knew about the debate is because I follow Dickon Edwards on Twitter, and he posted a link to the debate. The debate itself was occasioned by an art-form that I largely detest (opera). I got a flyer through the post, and promptly threw it away. Via the web, I got to hear a bit of Muhly’s music, see him in person, learn more about the opera, get engaged by the debate, and now I’ve bought tickets to see it.

The idea that there is an online world ‘out there’ that is separate, disengaged from the physical one is part of the problem of the debate. When Will Self heard the word ‘internet native’ he said something like ‘aha – so it’s a territory’. I don’t believe it is, even if people use the metaphor in casual speech. Because I don’t think it’s a territory,  I also don’t think it’s capable of having ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’. Perhaps it’s this metaphor that causes people to become internet xenophobes in the first place.

Postscript: As chance would have it – and thanks to Dickon Edwards again for the tip – the Guardian reports on Facebook Fatigue. Perhaps we’re over it already.

See also: 30 minute podcast/interview with Craig Lucas (librettist of Two Boys) and Nico Muhly from the Independent, with Edward Seckerson. Wonderful stuff, and more great insights on the world of the online.