Class Notes

Tune Out, Turn Off

By Paula Marantz Cohen | March 27, 2012


Until recently, I always assumed that learning proceeds according to prescribed steps: one becomes interested in a subject, reads about it, thinks about it, studies it, and thinks some more until finally achieving some degree of mastery. This process takes time but is necessary to gain any sort of meaningful knowledge.

Yet, recently, a paradigm shift has occurred that may spell the end of this kind of learning. The shift was anticipated by the 1960s communications guru Marshall McLuhan in his much-repeated maxim: the medium is the message. McLuhan described an earlier evolution from an oral to a print culture with the invention of movable type, which encouraged a style of engaging with information that was linear and individualistic. But with the advent of television and computers, which he presciently anticipated, he argued that we had now entered a new era. He contrasted what he called the “hot” media of books and even movies to “cool” media, in which we skim across the surface of the material in a haphazard way rather than burrowing deeply into it with concentrated attention. The nature of these “cool” technologies is nonlinear, he maintained, and would produce a population both more distracted and more interconnected. It was McLuhan who coined the phrase “global village”—a return to a kind of tribal culture that preceded the printing press.

I did not take McLuhan seriously when I first read him in the 1970s, associating him with the soft thinking of the ’60s counterculture. But I read him now with renewed respect, and marvel at his prescience. For what he theorized based on vague portents then, I now feel happening both around me and in my own synapses.

The change on a personal front came about a year ago when I acquired an iPad. Because I can take this device with me wherever I go, I am now so addicted to email that I get an adrenaline rush when something of slight interest pops up in my inbox. Like a swig from a flask, or, I imagine, a snort of cocaine, this elevation of mood lasts a relatively short time—and I have to go in again and check for new messages. Without a message, I feel a slight drop, which only drives me to check more often in the hope of getting something that will deliver the desired lift.

Having come to this addiction late (and having largely eschewed other forms of Internet communication like texting, tweeting, and Facebook), I can modulate my response—go cold turkey if I have to (or so I tell myself). I know what needs to be done if I want to write an essay or read a book, and I can still do those things. But if I had grown up with the zings of text messages, I don’t know if I would be able to concentrate long enough to read a book or write an essay of more than a few hundred words (i.e., a blog post like this one.)

Lately, I’ve noticed in my students a run on the bathroom in the middle of my 50-minute classes—too long a period, it seems, for them to keep off Facebook or Twitter. But by leaving the class to respond to their Internet messages, these students lose the thread of discussion in the classroom, which only serves to reinforce the distractedness that sent them out of the room to begin with. This is a feedback loop that is bound to have an effect on how teachers teach.

Many of McLuhan’s disciples appended a moral charge to his views, predicting dire consequences to the domination of cool media. McLuhan himself was not interested in passing judgment, and neither am I. Although I lament the fact that many of my students do not have the attention span that I would like, I am not inclined to blame them. My style of teaching, through books, is on its way to being obsolete. If I want to hold on a bit longer, I’ll have to figure out a way to be that much more interesting—or punitive—so that they stay in their seats and focus on what I say.

What is needed (and might already be happening) is a way to organize the blips and zings of Facebook and texting to produce new kinds of creativity and productivity.  Books were seen as potentially damaging to the fabric of a communal culture when the printing press first made them widely available. That prediction had its truth, but books ushered in so much else of value, that the trade-off soon ceased to have meaning. The same may prove true for Internet culture. Who knows what app, derived from this new paradigm for learning, lies on the horizon?

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