This week, my Twitterstream brought me the very wonderful Little People art project, so I retweeted the link.
Then I get a message from Harvey: One of my favourites. But hey, I already sent you that link, after our first ever meeting. And you liked it.
This is actually pretty funny, because Harvey and I have been chatting about how everything is being ‘re-found’ and retweeted instead of people actually making new stuff*. Ooh, new thing! Pass it on. Ooh, new thing! And because it’s interesting, we do pass it on, and so do others. BOOM — information explosion.
And because there is just so much information out there, everything old is new again. It’s like those chain-letter emails you get from your mum, warning you about something that everyone else on the Internet knew was a hoax like six years ago. You’d think that everyone would know by now and nobody would press the FWD button, but no, here it comes again, that one about how if you don’t forward this to five friends RIGHT NOW, Barack Obama will come over there and saw the legs off your hamster.
At best, rapid circulation of ideas can be massively stimulating: I find it exciting to be bombarded by quality content that makes me think about my teaching; exciting, and sometimes even inspirational. But there’s a danger that our culture is so obsessed with the next new thing that we are in danger of losing our appreciation of depth. If you want to be shallow in your leisure hours, who cares, right? But it’s switching off that mindset that’s hard, and I think we need to be wary of anything that precludes in-depth analysis or reduces our capacity for critical thinking. Look at the shiny shiny! .
Whether resources like Twitter actually contribute to our alledged attentional decline is open to debate. A much-cited study this week purported to show that Twitter, text-messaging and YouTube don’t stretch your working memory the way Facebook use can. From the Telegraph’s coverage:
[The study's author, Dr Tracy Alloway] said there was evidence linking TV viewing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) while extensive texting was associated with lower IQ scores.
To be honest, I’d feel a lot happier if this whole story didn’t smack of correlational data being interpreted as causal in yet another attempt to show how society as we know it is circling the drain. Sure, I imagine if you use Twitter for nothing but exchanging 140-character messages, then it probably isn’t giving your brain the full workout. But what about those of us who use Twitter to pass along information about longer articles? I’ve read 10,000-word articles linked to from Twitter in a single sitting. Again, it’s all about how you use the software, a nuance that seems to escape the mainstream media most of the time. I really think that networking culture of the kind fostered by Twitter is a potential goldmine: there’s something there for everybody, and knowledge flow within a network is the future of training and education.
But we do need to consider whether the constant tweeting and retweeting of information might erode the time people used to spend making stuff. To avoid this, I think we need to get serious about blocking out time away from the infostream. There’s a huge temptation, if the tap is always running, to keep holding a bucket under it, but I think that way leads to madness. Step away from the tap and do stuff, don’t just punt ideas around. Otherwise you’re not an expert, you’re a dilettante (Trust that link and stick with it; it’s a good ‘un. Again, probably contains language NSFW.)
For me, the hardest part is finding the right balance between being stimulated by retweet culture into creating new stuff, and spending enough time away from it to actually do the creating. We’re going to have to move to a way of thinking in which infostream management is taught in schools; at the moment, most taught skills focus on how to find what you need, but I suspect that increasingly, what people will really want/need to know is how to manage the flood.
I saw a great tweet recently, but of course I can’t remember who it was, now (if you know, please tell me so I can attribute it appropriately). Someone was showing Twitter to their mother. The mother looked at it and said, But how do you make it stop?
* Only this week, my brain re-found the term attentionomics. Of course, I didn’t coin it; a quick google will show that I am not in any way the first person to identify this term. Nevertheless, I am going to start using it when explaining what I do, because it’s a good word.