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June 14 2013

14:40

Pinned: Dan Zak, 40 Towns, Chimamanda Adichie, TED Radio Hour, writing advice, Walter Lippmann

Pinned this week week for your storytelling pleasure:

Highly recommended: In schools, the complexity in assigned reading is dropping, NPR reports: “A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.” Pair with yesterday’s engaging Dan Zak piece in the Washington Post, on the news illiteracy and apathy of prospective jurors in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case:

The efficiency of the American jury system, Mark Twain once wrote, “is only marred by the difficulty of finding 12 men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”

Yet it is the most democratic demonstration we have, says Randolph Jonakait, a professor at New York Law School and author of “The American Jury System.”

“That we take ordinary people off the street and ask them to decide the fate of other human beings — that’s truly remarkable,” Jonakait says. “And it says something about our belief or our faith or our willingness to use ordinary common sense in making the most important decisions people are ever going to make.”

R39, a landscaper, wrote this on his juror questionnaire: “I don’t really care about what happened.”

When pressed in court about this sentiment on Wednesday, R39 says: “I’m not a person who cares that much about other people.”

When court went into recess late Wednesday afternoon, 75 jurors had been dismissed and 20 remained in the potential pool. Once the pool reaches 40, these potential jurors will be subjected to a round of more detailed questioning that will drill down into personal matters and opinions unrelated to pretrial publicity. The judge announced Thursday that the jury would be sequestered for the duration of trial, which is expected to start next week, at the earliest, and last two to four weeks.

Through Thursday, 34 potential jurors had been questioned individually, sitting in the same cushioned chair, in front of the same congregation of media, answering the same convoluted questions from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

De la Rionda is asking B86 on Tuesday if she could disregard hearing that Trayvon had been suspended at school.

“I could try,” says B86, auburn hair tucked behind her ears.

Does “try” mean you can?

“Probably.”

“ ‘Probably’ means you’re not sure? Does it mean ‘maybe’?”

“I’m not sure. . . . I can’t guarantee anything.”

“We are inspired by the honesty of the potential jurors,” Trayvon’s family said in a statement Wednesday.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 9.30.23 PMGear: “Keep Calm and Revise” — just put it on your wall already. You’ll feel better. Bonus: a “bloody-writer” crime scene notepad, for the days when that doesn’t work.

Inspired: “I learned how to read from comic books, but also how to see.” + 40 Towns, the literary journalism website and work of Jeff Sharlet’s students at Dartmouth + TED Radio Hour exploration of storytelling, with novelist Chimamanda Adichie, filmmaker Andrew Stanton + Creatavist, The Atavist’s new DIY multimedia storytelling tool, which WBUR is using to manage Whitey Bulger trial coverage.

Cartoontorials: on finding your own voice (but loving Michael Paterniti’s!); on the professionalism of sticking to your assigned word count; on the definition of narrative journalism (in case you forgot).

Tip sheets: Writing advice from famous authors (Orwell: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”) + Edmund Wilson’s checklist on how to say NO.

Walter Lippmann: a board devoted to the two-time-Pulitzer-winning columnist, author, founding editor of The New Republic, and namesake of our Nieman Foundation headquarters, Lippmann House. A deep thinker on the interplay between public opinion and the news, he argued that the masses make up their mind before studying facts, and that most people operate in willful ignorance, without bothering to think critically. He made those arguments in 1922. (Sound timely? See: Zak; Zimmerman; news, above.)

November 22 2010

17:00

Attention versus distraction? What that big NY Times story leaves out

Yesterday’s Sunday Times devoted the lead slot of its front page to a long examination of the effects of the web on the attention spans of teenagers. In the tradition (yes, it is now a tradition) of Nick Carr, the piece concludes that, essentially, our smartphones — and our Facebook and our YouTube and our web in general — are robbing kids of their ability to concentrate. Neuroplasticity! “Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people,” the piece notes. “The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”

Rex Sorgatz summed it up like so: “‘Young people suck.’ –NYT.”

The human face of the epidemic is Vishal Singh, a seventeen-year-old from, naturally, Silicon Valley. “At the beginning of his junior year,” the Times reports, “he discovered a passion for filmmaking and made a name for himself among friends and teachers with his storytelling in videos made with digital cameras and editing software.” But that commitment to creation doesn’t transfer to schoolwork; though Vishal is entering a “pivotal academic year” in his life — his senior year, the year when colleges come calling and thus, ostensibly, futures are decided — he can’t seem to focus on the work he needs to do to do well.

Several teachers call Vishal one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up. Last semester, his grade point average was 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F in Algebra II. He got an A in film critique.

“He’s a kid caught between two worlds,” said Mr. Reilly [Vishal's principal at Woodside High School] — one that is virtual and one with real-life demands.

Two worlds. One real, the other digital. And in the space between them is Vishal — and, by implication, several other wayward members of the world’s first generation of digital natives, the kids who are, per the the piece’s headline, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” But does that binary — the ‘two worlds’ thinking that pits the virtual realm against the ‘real,’ as if the two were engaged in an epic battle for dominance of that vast land that is Impressionable Youth — really explain what’s going on here? Does it, for example, explain the nail it-to-fail it range of Vishal’s academic performance? Maybe; there’s a chance that his F in Algebra II can indeed be blamed on some unholy union of YouTube/Facebook/Sir Berners-Lee. But, then, if distraction is a diffusive proposition — if it infects all areas of intellectual life indiscriminately, and thus, ostensibly, equally — then how do you explain the A in film critique? (Also: a class in film critique? Perhaps Vishal’s problem is simply that his school is set in a DeLillo novel.)

Attention and distraction

That’s not to discount the attention-fragmenting nature of the web. “Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything,” Vishal’s best friend, Sam, says in the story, after blaming the site for his inability to finish books and, thus, for his lower-than-desired SAT scores. And a distraction Facebook most certainly is. The question, though, is: distraction from what? And also: What’s inherently wrong with distraction? It seems to me that the real dichotomy here — to the extent, of course, that it’s fair to break any complex problem into reductive dualities — is less a matter of focus vs. distraction, and more a matter of the digital age’s spin-off opposition: interest vs. non-interest. Caring vs…lack of.

We talk a lot about fragmentation in the online world — the unbundling of the news product, the scattering of audiences, the unraveling of publics, etc. And when we do, we tend to focus on the entropic implications of that shift: “Fragmentation,” of course, carries a whiff of nostalgia not just for the thing being fragmented, but for wholeness itself — for completeness, for community, for all that’s been solid. What that framing forgets, though, is that the other side of fragmentation can be focus: the kind of deep-dive, myopic-in-a-good-way, almost Zen-like concentration that sparks to life when intellectual engagement couples with emotional affinity. The narrows, to be Carrian about it, of the niche. And when that kind of focus springs to life — when interest becomes visceral, when caring becomes palpable, when you’re so focused on something that the rest of the world melts away — the learning that results tends to be rich and sticky and sweet. The kind that you carry with you throughout your life. The kind that becomes a part of you. The kind that turns, soon enough, into wisdom.

It’s a kind of learning, though, that can’t be forced — because it relies for its initial spark on something that is as ineffable as it is intense. Interest has a way of sneaking up on you: One day, you’re a normal person, caring about normal things like sports and music and movies — and the next a Beatles song comes on the radio, and suddenly you’re someone who cares not just about sports and music and movies, but also about the melodic range of the sitar. Even if you don’t want, necessarily, to be somebody who cares about the melodic range of the sitar. Interests are often liberating; occasionally, they’re embarrassing. Either way, you can’t control them. They, in fact, control you.

The general and the personal

And that, I’d wager, is the root of Vishal’s academic problems: not that he’s not smart — indeed, again, “one of their brightest students” — and not that he’s the victim of a mass outbreak of web-borne distraction (again, that A in film critique). His problem is both simpler and more serendipitous than that: He just doesn’t care about algebra.

Which is a problem, of course, shared by probably 99.9 percent of the population who have experienced the particular pain of the polynomial. Rare is the person who genuinely likes algebra; rarer still is the person who genuinely, you know, cares about it. But we learn it anyway — because that’s what we’re expected to do. Formal education, as we’ve framed it, is not only about finding ways to learn more about the things we love, but also, equally, about squelching our aversion to the things we don’t — all in the ecumenical spirit of generalized knowledge. We value the straight-A report card not just as a demonstration of indiscriminate ability, but also as evidence of indiscriminate discipline: mastery over apathy. (An A in English and in chemistry! You, little polymath, are ready for polite society.)

What distinguishes Vishal’s apathy, though — and what makes it more anxiety-inducing than that of the algebraic apatheists in whose footsteps he follows — is that he is coming of age in the digital era. And the digital era is bringing a new kind of empowerment not just to interest, but to aversion. The web is a space whose very abundance of information — and whose very informational infrastructure — trains our attention to follow our interests. And vice versa. In that, it’s empowering information as a function of interest. It’s telling Vishal that it’s better to spend time with video than with Vonnegut — simply because he’s more interested editing than in reading. Vishal needs needs no other justification for his choice; interest itself is its own acquittal. While formal learning has been, in the pre-digital world, a matter of rote obligation in the service of intellectual catholicism, the web-powered world is creating a knowledge economy that spins on the axis of interest. Individual interest. The web inculcates a follow your bliss approach to learning that seeps, slowly, into the broader realm of information; under its influence, our notion of knowledge is slowly shedding its normative layers.

For the learner, of course, that is incredibly empowering. One minute, I’m looking up a recipe for spice-roasted sweet potatoes; the next, courtesy of a few link-clicks, I’m learning that sweet potatoes are used for dye in South America, and that there exists such a thing as sweet potato butter. Which is, in a word, awesome. And it means, on the social scale, a new permission to explore our idiosyncrasies — a bottom-up shift that our top-down education systems — and journalism, along with them — are grappling with. From Wikipedia to topic pages, from social curation to the explosive little link, the global textbook that is the web takes on a self-guided brand of dynamism, a choose-your-own-adventure proposition fueled by whim and whimsy. And for digital news, as much as we talk about consumers’ desire for a curated information experience — whether on an iPad or within social networks or on the branded pages of the open web — what Vishal’s volitality suggests is that what we really want from the web is something more basic: the permission to be impulsive.

Image by Mike Licht used under a Creative Commons license.

July 02 2010

16:00

Papering over the bumps: Is the online media ecosystem really flat?

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, and three. — Josh]

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky adopts the mode of a police procedural, analyzing the means, motives, and opportunities we have to use our cumulative free time in creative and generous ways. It’s a strange move, treating a notional good as the object of criminal activity, but it affords Shirky with a simple structure for his book.

Beginning with a chapter on “means,” then, Shirky looks at the tools we now have at our disposal for the sharing of stories, images, and ideas. He doesn’t immediately turn to the usual suspects — Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere — but instead looks at outpourings of shared concern and interest that have erupted in surprising places. His first example is the explosive outbreak of protest that occurred in South Korea when US-produced beef was reintroduced to markets in Spring 2008. South Korea had banned American meat during the bovine spongiform encephelopathy or “mad cow disease” scare in 2003, later reopening its market in a quiet agreement between the two countries’ governments. Protests against this move began among followers of the popular Korean boy band Dong Ban Shin Ki. Exchanging messages in the decidedly non-political forum of the bulletin boards on DBSK’s web site, they ignited a nationwide furor and nearly brought down the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

As Shirky describes it, the fluid and soluble nature of the new media helped to leverage the power of the protests. “[M]edia stopped being just a source of information and became a locus of coordination as well,” Shirky writes, as protesters used not only the DBSK web site but “a host of other conversational online spaces. They were also sending images and text via their mobile phones, not just to disseminate information and opinion but to act on it.”

When I read such stories of burgeoning viral foment, I think of Arthur Machen, a British author of ghost stories writing at the time of the First World War. During the run-up to the bloody campaign of the Somme, Machen published a short story called “The Bowmen,” in which he imagined soldiers who died five hundred years earlier at the Battle of Agincourt, led by Saint George, riding out of the sky to rescue an outgunned British force at the Battle of Mons. The story appeared in the London Evening News in September 1914. In the months that followed, parish magazines throughout Britain reprinted the story; and soon, fragments of the tale began to circulate, virally as it were, in the form of rumor and testimony from the combatants themselves. The story grew: Dead German soldiers had been found transfixed by arrows; Saint George and Agincourt’s band of brothers had been joined by winged angels and Joan of Arc. Although Machen sought to publicize the fictional origins of the tale, it had gone viral thanks to the flattened transmedia of newspapers and church gossip.

We’re in Walter Lippmann territory here. In World War I and the World Wide Web alike, we come to the public sphere with a kit of reflexes and assumptions. Of course, unlike angels on the battlefield, mad cow disease is real. The extent of its threat to public health, however, may have more in common with the supernatural dangers faced by German soldiers in 1914; the ways the two stories engage our reflex-kit have much in common. From history, we can take comfort in the knowledge that public opinion could be infected with viral memes before the emergence of the Internet. Can history also help us to cope with the shocks and tremors such rumors induce? Are they the signs of a healthy public sphere, or symptoms of a viral disease? Shirky would proclaim the former; Nicholas Carr likely inclines to the latter diagnosis. But both sides lack a necessary degree of richness and complexity.

The flattening of the media — the Internet’s ability to break down barriers between broadcast and print, between advocacy and information — is recognizable to us all. But it’s worth questioning how truly flat it all has become. Shirky extolls the liberating frisson that comes from clicking the “publish now” button familiar to casual bloggers — but he fails to mention that invariably a few of those buttons are hooked up to more pipes than others. He talks about the end of scarcity: the resource-driven economics of print (and even the limits of the electromagnetic spectrum, in the case of broadcast media) are a thing of the past, he observes, and the opportunity to publish is now abundant. But we must recognize that on the Internet, large audiences remain a scarce resource — and they’re largely still in the hands of transmedia conglomerates busy leveraging their powers in the old media of scarcity to dominate traffic.

Is the notion of flatness truly descriptive, or does it merely paper over the bumps? Real differences in the power of platforms exist throughout the digitial media, as they did among the analog; the new political economy of communication is largely about shifting those differences around. The bumps used to lie before the doors of access, making it difficult to get published in the first place. Those bumps have been flattened out — but as with an oversized carpet, they’ve popped up elsewhere, in front of the audiences. Sure, you can “publish now.” But who will know that you have published? On the Internet, no one may know that you’re a dog, but they can tell from your traffic and your follower counts whether you’re a celebrity or a major media outlet lurking in the social media. When CBS News has a Facebook account and you can follow CNN on Twitter, there’s little point in pretending that the means of communication have truly been flattened.

But flatland is extending itself everywhere, according to Shirky. “Now that computers and increasingly computerlike phones have been broadly adopted, the whole notion of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it.” No doubt this is true — cyberspace and meatspace are everywhere meeting and interpenetrating. But just as in the “real life” of old, the tools are not created equal. Some still have more leverage than others.

“Ideology addresses very real problems,” Slavov Žižek has said with unaccustomed clarity, “but in a way that mystifies them.” Flatness in the media is an ideology. It mystifies the bumps and valleys of the real which, as ever, are composed of talent, power, and liberty.

What then is the answer? Carr’s mandarin approach — to leave great thoughts to the great thinkers, to preserve the fiction of another dominant style — isn’t so much idealistic as it is impossible. For the phenomenon that Shirky calls our cognitive surplus has proven (if proof were needed) that curiosity and ingenuity are widely dispersed throughout the population. And without a doubt, technologies that offer a means to furthering those qualities are worth promoting. But an ideology of flatness isn’t the way to promote them. We need to engage the new media tools as if our actions and ideas have real power in the world. The ethical implications of such a stance may be debatable, but they cannot be trivial.

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