Friday, January 11, 2013

Deep Thoughts

It may seem like we’ve reached technical nirvana. Not only is all the information known to man available at the click of a mouse … you can also view it on your mobile information system, commonly known as a smart phone. Could that be the problem? Is the Internet making the phones smarter, but people dumber? Author Nicholas Carr spoke at Chautauqua Community House last week in Boulder. He asks, “Are digital distractions destroying critical thinking?”

He is the former executive editor of Harvard Business Review and the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr is convinced that the Internet is actually rewiring our brains. We’re becoming short attention span, distraction junkies, at the expense of deep introspective learning.

I’ve written before about how I had to learn intense concentration methods in order to understand advanced mathematics; math that, at that time, it seemed to me, everyone else in the class understood with ease. I actually deserted my distraction filled home for a sterile cubicle down at the public library and forced myself into a deep, non-distracted, form of concentration in order to complete my assignments. It did work, and I eventually conquered the subject matter, at least to a certain degree.

Now I’m again deep in the technological mud, trying to make sense of advanced physics and the math that describes these natural interactions. It is no easier for me this time than it was before, but now I have a private office in which to barricade myself and spend the necessary time in deep “flow.” I’ve never had any problems learning about electronics and engineering. Perhaps that was because I took on that subject gradually, starting with electronic-based hobbies as a youngster, graduating to Navy technical school, and then teaching electronics while, at the same time, studying electronics engineering in college. So I never had to struggle to learn the details and intricacies of the subject matter due to the gradual immersion.

It was similar with Computer Science. By the time I entered a formal curriculum at the University of Denver, I had already been a programmer for over twenty years and had completed countless IBM programming classes … again learning by little steps.

It was only when I dug into the details of advanced mathematics that a level of concentration was required that exceeded any effort I had to perform in the past. I don’t know if it was that the math was simply harder … or at least harder for me, or if it was the lack of the gradual immersion that had served me so well in other topics that most would find just as challenging. Even physics never gave me the difficulties that math seems to. Again, I had been reading about physics and studying physics on my own most of my life, so, likewise, it seemed a familiar topic. Only the deep difficulties of mathematics seemed to stretch my ability to concentrate and created an obstacle to my success which required extraordinary effort to overcome.

I’ve written before about what I call “flow time.” That is a characteristic of the deep concentration. One of the indicators of this mind set is how quickly time seems to pass. After an initial time required to enter flow time, all outside distractions seem to disappear as the focus becomes single minded. If no one stops you, you may study all night and not even realize how much time has lapsed. However, if there is a knock on the door, a ring of a phone, a doorbell, or a thousand other possible distractions, you pop up from the deep concentration like an emergency surface of a nuclear submarine. It can take the better part of an hour to recover the deep concentration lost to the interruption.

One reason that IBM gave private offices to their engineers and programmers was to reduce the “flow time” killing distractions, although IBM would occasionally forget this practice and put us in cubicles, the most distraction-causing architecture known to man. At one point in my career I was working on a development methodology. That is, a method to be used to develop software and other business solutions. I was located at an IBM office near Sleepy Hollow, New York … yes, the Headless Horseman’s Sleepy Hollow. We had a modern office building, one of the first to have wireless systems and we all had brand new IBM Laptops, but the cubicles made it very hard to actually Think, regardless of the shiny new and networked ThinkPads. The conversations from the nearby workers and the clatter of printers and keyboards kept me from focusing on the job at hand.

I finally resorted to going outside and sitting at one of the picnic tables near the building. The wireless range included the nearby area and the weather was pleasant. Not only did that afford the solitude I needed to complete my work, but the beautiful New York landscape was an ideal backdrop to deep thinking and problem solving. (For those that have never been there, New York is one of the most beautiful states in the Union with forests and rivers and lakes and wildlife galore.)

Are we sacrificing our problem-solving prowess to this modern information age? Remember, data isn’t wisdom and information is not knowledge. We still need that central processing unit between our ears to make sense of this nonsensical world.

Carr contrasts this phenomenon of deep concentration to viewing a typical web page, the borders filled with distractions, advertisements, links, and all kinds of other attractive baubles right there on the page. Compare that to a simple text book … possibly not even a color illustration to distract you. In support of that argument, recent studies have noted a drop in reading comprehension in those choosing a web site riddled with hyperlinks, ads, and videos.

The single-mindedness required for deep concentration is exactly the opposite of the multi-tasking experience of modern technology users with e-mail, text, twitter, and phone always running in your peripheral vision. In my experience, most people are not very good at multi-tasking anyway, and now we're making it our standard operating (and thinking) procedure.

And what about music, the sound track of our lives? I worked with a professor from BYU who carried a complete music library with him when he traveled. He had a portable CD player and a portfolio with around 100 disks. His explanation was that classical music was soothing to the brain and encouraged concentration. Rock and roll, on the other hand, in his opinion, was a distraction.

Fast forward to today. Everyone you see, all the time, has a couple of sound transducers stuck in their ears as they listen to music … possibly classical, but more likely rock or even rap … while attending to their daily life. Now, certainly, some daily activities can use some musical distraction. But I’ve seen people with text books and writing instruments out, obviously studying some school assignment, while listening to their iPod. Plus they usually have their phone out texting and there’s a TV screen nearby with news or sports or other talking heads. It is the symptom of our modern world’s distraction addiction. Even the distractions have distractions. The news media isn’t content to simply present a single story on the tube. “Crawlers” with information on other events scroll across the bottom of the screen, distracting us from the main story's distraction.

The question is, does this actually change the way we think? Are the technological marvels actually rewiring our brains, and to a lower performance program? Carr gave other examples of how technology through the ages has drastically changed how people actually think. Imagine the impact of maps, models of our world that suddenly made it possible to visualize an existence far beyond the limits of human sight. These served to substitute an artificial reality and led to many intellectual conceptions. This virtual view and modeling likely caused advances in thinking, but this was also an obvious result of the technology of mapping. When I taught modeling as an intellectual concept, I would use the example of maps … and gave the age old military warning that "the map isn't the territory." When the map doesn't match the territory, trust the territory. That warning was not required before maps came into being. Everyone trusted their senses and believed the territory. Now maps lead to a new conception, often in error if the map is wrong, but still accepted by the mind!

Then came the clock, completely revolutionizing how a day is divided into smaller and smaller increments of time, with a constant eye on the time required to make certain one doesn’t “miss something.” Rush hour was born. Lives became more regimented. The natural offshoot was the time clock and punching in at work. Although the clock and other scientific instruments led to discoveries in astronomy and physics and even biology, we now think in terms of time. Calculus was invented to deal with mathematical problems of change. Time is now central to all our thinking.

The tools and instruments that we use to extend our senses and perform complex calculations have not only changed our society, but our very way of acting and thinking. That is the key point. Recent discoveries in the realm of neuroplasticity indicate that we are reshaping our minds to match our environments. In this respect, the Internet is the granddaddy of all inventions. Imagine how much the Internet has changed things … including the quaint library where I first practiced concentration and deep thinking.

According to Carr, these technological creations were invented to achieve particular goals, but often the deepest effects aren’t things that we’ve planned. Could it be that people using computer tools become too focused on immediate goals and that these information appliances are not good for thinking about the affect the very tools will have on our lives in the long run? What are the unintended consequences of using these modern inventions?

I used to teach programming students the danger of flow-charts and how they led to "flow chart thinking." I tried to substitute "pseudocode" as an appropriate design language, but the obvious advantage of the visual representation of a flow-chart made that a hard sell. I often encounter issues while maintaining code that are artifacts of the original programmer following flow-chart thinking, rather than "top-down" and object-oriented design. Software Professors fought a long and hard battle to convince students and experienced programmers that "go-to" is considered harmful. Out of this struggle was born structured programming which birthed object-oriented programming. In this case the technology WAS the thinking model.

Consider how technology is changing social norms and social expectations. Carr says the danger in rewiring our brains to crave multi-tasking is that we may shrink the population of people who are the deep thinkers — ones who can focus while tuning out distractions and stimulation.

It is not that we should eschew technology or technological progress. It is more that we should be consciously aware of the impact of that technology on our very way of thinking. Information at our fingertips should be most useful. I know that, personally, I’ve exchanged a dozen Schaum’s Notes for access to Wikipedia, and I don’t want to go back. But we can’t outsource our mental capacity to computers and replace critical thinking areas of our brains with synapses hungry for distraction. As the famous fictional character, Barbie, once said, “Math is hard.” The Internet does not make it easier. But the Internet may be changing the way our brains work, putting it farther out of our reach.

I suggest this alternative treatment for “Internet Brain.” Go for a walk outside. Leave your iPhone at home. Find a little solitude and enjoy the greatest show on earth: a sunrise. You start out in the dark of night, and watch the slow lightening of the horizon. Finally, after waiting a good patient amount of time, the glowing orb will rise for your appreciation. Time disappears. The clock has no meaning. It is the here and now of experience. It is a single event enjoyed without distraction. Try finding that on Wiki. At least it is something to think about!

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