Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

accept my cyborg self!

Danah Boyd doesn't just want to be a cyborg, she wants to be accepted as a cyborg. Recently at a conference she was criticized for fooling around on the web rather than paying attention to the speakers. This upsets her.

Interestingly, she doesn't do what — in my experience, anyway — most people similarly accused do: she doesn't claim Awesome Multitasking Powers. She freely admits that she wasn’t paying much attention to the conference speakers, but says that people don't listen to speakers at conferences anyway — “I don't think that people were paying that much attention before” laptops — and anyway she learned a lot while looking up words the speaker used on Wikipedia instead of trying to follow the argument. “Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.”

For Boyd, the criticism she received is a function of two things: first, an “anti-computer attitude,” and second, a refusal to “embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts.” (Stop trying to crush my spirit of inquiry!)

In response to all this I have a few questions. My chief one is this: why go sit in a room where someone is lecturing if you so conspicuously aren't interested? Or why not quietly edge out if a particular talk leaves you cold? That way you don't have to subject yourself to boring stuff — you can do your “learning and thinking and engaging” somewhere with coffee and pastries — and you don't distract, by your ceaseless typing and mousing, people who are trying to listen?

And one more: If you can learn via Twitter and Wikipedia, couldn't you also — just possibly — learn by listening to another human being for a while? Lord knows there are more than enough dreary lecturers in the world — “Earth to boring guy,” as Bart Simpson once said — but some people speak rather well. Think of the best TED talks: do you really want to be staring at your screen and typing while those are going on? All I am saying: Give listening a chance.


  • The most telling (and pathetic) moment in the blog post is the line about Raphael "dying from too much sex." Here we have a vision of education as a lifelong game of trivial pursuit. I imagine the poor docent trying to interpret a Raphael painting while her listeners, busying pecking at their mobile internet devices, bombard her with puerile questions: "Did you know that Raphael died from too much sex?!?!? Like, how weird is that?!?!?!?"

    I do not oppose computer technology. But I do oppose the superficial approach to ideas that the high priests of the web hold up as our glorious democratic future. Popular culture has long harbored the fantasy that odd, trivial details ("Raphael died from too much sex") provide access to a secret truth of history that professional intellectuals have suppressed or overlooked. The internet gives fuel to such beliefs.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Note also that in the comments she says that she has ADHD and has decided that the medicine that used to enable her to concentrate on one thing at a time had more drawbacks than benefits.

    I think another thing driving this is the corporate culture of business meetings, in which people are forced to sit through boring, useless meetings and need to have a "backchannel" open to keep their sanity. (I gather there are students who feel the same way about required university classes as well.)

    Alan, if you haven't read Vernor Vinge's story "Fast Times at Fairmont High," it's a frighteningly convincing portrayal of the future this woman is longing for.

    And Dave. Yes! You have hit it squarely on the head. When you websurf a topic, it's really easy to end up with whatever tidbits happened to catch your attention, whereas an expert lecture (or a book) is more likely to considered case for what is important about that topic.

    Also interesting in the comments is a plug for the virtue of patience. Unless you're just totally unfamiliar with the basic prerequisites for understanding the topic of a lecture, you can save your questions and look them up *after* the lecture.

  • This is our future. Disconnected and paradoxically hyperconnected individuals unwilling to submit to the self-contained dynamics of the activities they attend and instead burrowed into their screens while arguing that one learning paradigm is equivalent to another and how dare you reproach her to try to restrict her freedom. Go to the movies while surfing the web, go bowling while surfing the web, go out to dinner while surfing the web, play chess while surfing the web. These behaviors will be everywhere.

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