Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Multitasking: How It Affects Reading and Writing

PBS' Frontline did an excellent program last night on our Digital Nation. It covered a variety of issues including tests that showed how young people who think they are excellent at multitasking are actually much slower at comprehending and reacting than they realize. I highly recommend you check it out if you didn't see it.

Apropos to this blog is something I have long suspected, which is how all this constant digital interaction affects reading and writing.  One college student said he never reads books anymore, but refers to the "Cliff Notes." And as far as writing goes, studies have shown that students at the better colleges are able to write excellent paragraphs but unable to put those paragraphs together into a cogent argument. Anecdotally, many students agreed.

Considering the theme of my blog, I certainly don't need to point out I am not some old fogey who hates change. The Internet improved my life both as a writer and a reader. It has provided me with opportunities, like editing for literary journals, that I could otherwise never have dreamed of.  On a less personal note, I've also mentioned many times how I believe the Internet saved short fiction and poetry, both of which had lost ground to popular novels.

But Digital Nation isn't just about laptops. It's about laptops and Blackberries, cellphones and iPhones, texting, IMing, watching videos, playing games, Facebooking, Twittering, and more––all at the same time. It's about professors competing with whatever else students can have up on their laptop screens––that the profs can't see––and Tweet time competing with homework time. It's about being in constant contact and entertainment mode every waking hour and waking hours extending into sleep hours in order to keep up with it. It's about being on call 24/7.

Many of us who did not grow up with these constant distractions have convinced ourselves there is nothing wrong with learning this way. Inherent in this thinking is the assumption kids are learning, and maybe they are, though the studies I mentioned at the outset say differently. Maybe the study was biased in some way or the yardstick isn't appropriate. Still, there are two types of learning. There is learning facts that can be regurgitated on a test and there is learning to think and problem solve. These latter require the ability to stay with a subject for an extended period and being able to link thoughts together to form a logical conclusion. That's what we're losing in this digital age, and not just among kids, but among many middle-aged individuals who have bought into the digital barrage as well.

Reading doesn't have to be in print, but reading book length works of fiction or nonfiction trains our minds to move slowly and stick with a project to its finish. The ability to concentrate separates older children from younger; adults from teens. It's the reason why adults, generally, tend to act less impulsively than kids. Reading the original piece also teaches us to go deeper into issues and form our own opinions. Cliff notes, on the other hand, tell us what the story is about and how we are supposed to interpret it.

Extremely well written paragraphs or 140 character Tweets are great, but I have yet to see a truly complicated and nuanced matter that can be expressed without stringing paragraphs together. Seeing a problem as fragmented pieces will not help solve it. Indeed, it can add to he confusion and overwhelm.

I'm not sure I have an answer to this. Can you turn back the clock? Probably not, but I wonder if, at some point, these kids might reach the breaking point. My generation––Boomers––lived by the TV schedule growing up. Yet many of us started turning off the TVs when we got older. Maybe our kids will start turning off their phones at dinner time or lift their eyes from the screen to notice the sunrise one morning and be transformed.

As for me, I'm sticking with the land line and cell use only for emergencies. I keep the buds out of my ears when I go for my morning walk. At night I read a book.

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