The Polarized Debate on Internet Distraction: An Alternative

In “You’re Distracted. This Professor Can Help.,” Marc Parry discusses Professor David Levy’s unique teaching practices when it comes to his class “Information and Contemplation,” where students scrutinize their use of technology (i.e. how much time they spend with it, how it affects their emotions, how it fragments their attention), write guidelines for improving their habits, and practice in-class meditation to sharpen their attention.

The conversation that Levy is intervening in is composed of two camps, defined by Parry as those camps that “duke it out over whether the Internet will unleash vast reservoirs of human potential (Clay Shirky) or destroy our capacity for concentration and contemplation (Nicholas Carr).”   Parry notes, however, “Mr. Levy hopes to open a fresh window on the polarized cultural debate about Internet distraction and information abundance.”

You're Distracted

Mr. Levy, a professor in the Information School at University of Washington, “sees a problem with many discussions about what technology is doing to our minds.”  “So many of those debates fail to even acknowledge or realize that we can educate ourselves, even in the digital era, to be more attentive,” he says. “What’s crucial is education.”

Mr. Levy believes that part of this education is teaching the benefits of meditation, and he begins each of his classes with a short meditation session in an effort to sharpen their focus.  Parry describes Mr. Levy’s meditation practice as repeatedly bringing your attention back to your breathing as the mind wanders away, training the mind to focus on the present.

“As digital tools gained momentum in the 90s, he [Levy] started to wonder whether technologies sold as tools of connection were also disconnecting people from themselves and one another. Cellphones, e-mail, Internet—all of it accelerated life. That contrasted with the stillness and focus Mr. Levy cultivated in meditation.”

The question of how people could live balanced lives in the middle of these technologies is what Levy took to the classroom.

Parry explains a sample assignment of Levy’s, where the students are required to spend 15 minutes to half an hour each day observing and logging their e-mail behavior.  Parry writes that the idea, an outgrowth of meditation, is to note what happens in the mind and body, and Levy is curious to see: Can they notice the initial impulse to check e-mail? What are they thinking and feeling at that point? What emotional reactions do they have the moment they set eyes on the inbox? How does their posture and breathing change as they e-mail?  After observing their own behavior for a week, students write a two- to three-page reflection on what they saw.

In the process, Levy finds that students tend to discover what works for them, learning how strong their attention is at different times and seeing how e-mail provokes pleasure, anxiety, even hatred.  Parry also explains the follow-up assignment: “e-mail meditation,” meaning concentrating only on e-mail for 15 minutes or so at a stretch (i.e. no answering the phone, no texting).

Mr. Levy even has his students use Camtasia, a program that records what happens on the computer screen as students use the computer as well as uses a Web cam to film the students’ postures, expressions;, and physical environments.  Levy’s students use the software to record 15-minute multitasking sessions, “an exercise designed to teach them to multitask more mindfully, by noticing the desire to switch activities and deciding whether to follow it.”

Parry wraps his article up by highlighting Ulrich Mayr, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, whose research is concerned with the cognitive costs of not paying attention.  Mayr defines multitasking as “rapid task switching, since the human brain does just one thing at a time.”  Parry provides an example of Mayr’s definition using the circumstances of watching television while doing homework from a textbook. He quotes Mayr’s conclusion that, “While you’re trying to follow a story on television, you won’t be doing your homework, he says, and while doing your homework, you won’t get the TV story. Simple as that.”  Mayr says that as a result of multitasking, one is left with moments of mental “dead time” that are unproductive for either task, carrying the implication for teaching that the cost of classroom multitasking can be a failure to learn.  Mr. Mayr, however, does caution against drawing the conclusion that multitasking weakens attention, with the big question of whether or not multitasking changes how our brains work remaining unanswered.

Mr. Levy, meanwhile, is encouraging other colleges to bring age-old contemplative practices to their wired campuses.  You can check out Parry’s article for quotes from Levy’s students, more on Mayr, and a sample reading list for Levy’s course!

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