Medium Shapes The Mind

Posted: January 7, 2020 in Uncategorized

A few years ago, I performed an experiment in a philosophy class I was teaching. My students had failed a midterm test rather badly. I had a hunch that their pervasive use of cell phones and laptops in class was partly responsible. So I asked them what they thought had gone wrong. After a few moments of silence, a young woman put up her hand and said: “We don’t understand what the books say, sir. We don’t understand the words.” I looked around the class and saw guileless heads pensively nodding in agreement.

I extemporized a solution: I offered them extra credit if they would give me their phones for nine days and write about living without them. Twelve students—about a third of the class—took me up on the offer. What they wrote was remarkable, and remarkably consistent. These university students, given the chance to say what they felt, didn’t gracefully submit to the tech industry and its devices.

  1. Emily Black says:

    Brian, I love this article! The first thing that I could immediately relate to was the mention of people using their phones when they want to avoid an awkward situation. I am constantly doing this especially when I am walking through a building on campus and don’t want to stop to engage with others. I also think I have developed a habit of picking up my phone if there is silence or I am not doing something else. Even if I do not have notifications or anything to do on my phone, I just habitually unlock it and find something to do to fill the void.

    One part that I didn’t relate to was when the students mentioned that it was nice to not be bothered. I don’t find calls, texts, emails to be a bother so I don’t think that I would have felt relieved by the lack of notifications. I think that the ease of communicating via text is so convenient that it is not a bother at all because I can get back to the person so quickly.

    I definitely recognize that my phone affects my productivity. I can get very distracted especially by the urge to check social media. I recently reorganized all of the apps on my phone so that I had to think about where I moved them to and realize how often I am constantly checking apps which I think has helped me spend less time on them. I have also been wanting to delete Snapchat recently because I don’t think it really benefits me. I honestly think it is a waste of time, a distraction, and causes unhealthy tendencies like checking others’ location on Snap Maps. I say this, but I still haven’t deleted it yet… I probably should. Updates to come on whether or not I muster up the courage to break up with Snapchat.

    Thanks for a great read!

    • I’m so glad you took a moment to read this article and found it worthwhile. There is certainly no denying that technology has made our lives more convenient. We can manage all sort of projects and persons easier, often by managing many of them at the same time. Certainly, multi-tasking is the most familiar way we now work. I believe the issue is way we now must, if we are going to multi-task as we now must if we are going to keep pace with everyone else, deal with projects and persons only on an extremely superficial level. I won’t repeat all the familiar cant about the general degradation of friendship – once the very center of human life – with the rise of digital technology and media. Instead, I’ll discuss the general degradation of reading. The professor writing the article notices his students are unable to understand the materials he assigns them. I won’t go so far as to say this is because there is something wrong with their brains; I’ll leave that topic to experts on neuroplasticity. I will say there is something wrong with their capacity to pay close attention to anything at all, including a college reading assignment. With each new semester I am continually reminded – as I receive notifications that students are downloading an essay by Kant, or even two stories by Calvino, a mere half hour before the beginning of class. There is no human way a person new to these materials – much less new to university studies – can properly absorb and process such material in so little time, because they were written expressly, as was anything ever worth reading, to be resistant to superficial skimming. Unfortunately, our society, currently so obsessed with ‘productivity’, has trained to feel skimming – i.e., automatic consumption of texts – as if it were the norm. It’s not wonder class discussions are so often one-sided, because the students – through little fault of their own – have scarcely read the assigned text at all.

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