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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.

November 19 2010

17:30

Covering a crisis more like molasses than quicksand

How do you cover a crisis that is not a crisis in the way we generally think of one — sudden, frenzied, tragic — but rather a tragedy that builds, slowly, tragically, over time? From the BP oil spill to Haiti’s pre- and post-earthquake heartbreaks to the world financial crisis to the war in Afghanistan — the latest conflict to be nicknamed, with only slight hyperbole, “the forever war” — to the even more insidious crises that are wounded social and political institutions: Some of the most important stories journalists can cover are not singular stories at all, but phenomena that stretch and wind through time. And doing them justice, in every sense, requires not only attention to context and nuance and explanation, but also patience: keeping up with them, unpacking them, and finding ways to sustain reader interest in and outrage about them, over long — sometimes years-long — stretches.

So how do you do it?

In a panel discussion at MIT yesterday evening, co-sponsored by the school’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, four experts tackled that questions, considering, from their areas of expertise, the idea of continuity as it relates to journalistic narratives. MIT technology historian Rosalind Williams discussed theoretical approaches to history as a function of human impact; investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten discussed his experience covering slow-moving stories for ProPublica; and our own Andrea Pitzer, editor of our sister site, Nieman Storyboard, discussed the role that narrative itself can play in unpacking stories and sustaining consumer interest in them over time.

“Journalism itself is in the midst of a slow-moving crisis,” the panel’s moderator, MIT writing instructor and science journalist Thomas Levenson, noted by way of context for the event. The web allows not only for a new immediacy in news coverage, but also for, of course, a new democratization of it. “There is this lovely possibility here,” he said. But our new tools also necessitate rethinking what “news coverage” is in the first place — and how we think about representing crises that are fluid, rather than solid.

“Slow-moving crisis’ is a contradiction,” Williams pointed out; when it comes to what we think of as crises, “our language has not caught up with the events” it tries to describe. The intricacies of the institutions we’ve developed for ourselves lead, she said, to what another MIT historian, Leo Marx, has has called a “semantic void”: a state of affairs for which we lack language — words, concepts, frameworks — that can adequately convey import and magnitude.

The word “crisis” itself, Williams pointed out, which comes from Greek word kerein (“to separate or shear”), originally had the sense of a static event: a singular, sudden rip in the continuity of human events. It’s since evolved into something much more amorphous and, thus, hard to capture — the result in part, she said, of a changing attitude toward humans’ relationship with the wider world.

It’s a problem we’ve seen throughout the history of technology, Williams noted, the result of an evolving recognition that the world is not a constant in the great equation of human experience, but rather another variable. In the past, she said, our general concept of history was rooted in the idea that history itself “consists of deeds and words that take place on the stable stage that is the world” — and the stage itself was predictable and solid, in contrast to the frailty of the human condition. Now, though, we generally recognize the universality of movement: Our context moves with us.

What that can lead to, though, when it comes to narrative, is a kind of reductive continuity. “If the sun never sets on history, then historians are really challenged,” she said — as are, of course, journalists. When there’s no arc to maintain, no ending to know, there’s no conclusion by which to calibrate context. There’s nothing to root our narratives. “If it’s a never-ending story, then you don’t understand the world — you don’t understand human life,” Williams said.

What we can understand, though, is the present moment. So it’s incumbent on us, Williams concluded, to try to match our rhetoric to the realities of the movements of history. “The point is to join up the crisis-feeling,” she said, echoing William Empson, with the realities of lived experience.

And, for that, simple storytelling — the ancient art of weaving together characters and plots and excitement — can be crucial, Pitzer said. Narrative “is really how people understand public crisis,” she noted; “it’s how they understand public policy issues.” Study after study has suggested the power of story not just as an artistic product, but as a cognitive function. Narrative buys people’s attention, allows them to retain complex information longer, she said. It is a teaching tool as much as an aesthetic feature. Indeed, if we journalists don’t provide narratives in our work, Pitzer noted — if we don’t consciously weave disparate facts into some a recognizable arc of action — “we are in some way denying them the ability to understand.”

Lustgarten applied that idea to his own coverage of the recent BP oil spill — a series of related reports that he and his ProPublica colleagues tackled (and are still tackling) over a long stretch of time. ProPublica’s aim with its stories, he said, is to capture reader interest with “a bit of a drumbeat of communication”: “rather than have one critical climax,” the idea is to “publish again and again, in incremental bits,” to help readers “find a pathway through the clamor that’s so distracting.”

In the outlet’s BP reporting, realizing that idea “was an exercise in commitment,” he said — a challenge of setting, and then sticking to, a vision for contextual, continual coverage rather than discrete reports. There were certainly moments, Lustgarten noted, when smaller scoops threatened to distract them; “it was very difficult to stay focused on what we had decided to do,” he said. “It was very difficult to stay disciplined.”

As to the broad question of completeness — how do you define an “event” against other events? How do you know when your reporting is finished? — Lustgarten gave a nod to Williams’ dissatisfaction with our current framings. ProPublica’s unique setup allows its reporters to see stories through “until their organic conclusion,” he noted; but determining that end point is a matter of serendipity and sensibility as much as anything else. Often, the conclusion point often comes down to reporter interest, he said. There are no clear borders between story and not-story.

So it was more fitting that ironic that the panel didn’t reach a conclusion in its own discussions. How could it? It highlighted, though, an idea that any journalist can put to practice: the crucial necessity of the long-view mindset, the insistence on placing even the most seemingly isolated events into the broader context of history. Always asking, in other words, “Why does this matter?” And that may involve being selective about the this we share. As Williams put it: “Our biggest responsibility is to determine which facts are worthy of being discovered.”

August 02 2010

15:00

Following up on the need for follow-up

Matt Thompson, currently of NPR and always of Snarkmarket, left a comment on my post from Friday about the need for follow-up journalism — including a link to a Snarkmarket post he’d written back in 2007. After reading that entry, and the very smart comments-section conversation it occasioned among Thompson and fellow-Snarkmarketeers Robin Sloan and Tim Carmody, I had what is probably the most common thought in the blogosphere: “Damn, I wish I’d seen that before I wrote my post.”

Thompson, who lived in Minneapolis in 2007, looks at the collapse of Minneapolis’ 35W bridge — which killed 13 people, and which was, tragically enough, all too predictable (and, thus, preventable). The press saw it coming; in the end, that didn’t matter. Because “even when our coverage anticipates disaster,” Thompson notes, “it often draws too little attention to avert it.”

I highly recommend reading Thompson’s post, and its comments section, in full; you’ll be hard-pressed to find smarter stuff. But if Instapaper you must, the nut of it is this: As journalism moves beyond physicality — as digitization allows our stories to transcend not just print and air, but atoms themselves — it is also free to move beyond temporality. Again, Thompson:

I think this may be one of the most important and underappreciated realities of journalism right now: Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re constrained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles.

We tend to understand the news cycle in analog terms, and so to assume that journalists have basically one chance — via the daily paper, the nightly newscast, the monthly magazine — to share a particular piece of news with their audiences. And the chance to contextualize that news for audiences — to give them a sense of information’s importance compared with the other news of the minute, of the day, of the year — is even rarer. What results is a flattening: the stories of our day, big and small, silly and significant, are leveled to the same plane, occupying the same space, essentially, in the wobbly little IKEA bookshelf that is the modular news bundle. That collapsing of context occurs not just in print papers, but in broadcast and online, as well (as even the most cursory glance at the HuffPost’s homepage — Midterms! Palin! Afghanistan! LiLo! — will make clear). And yet we want perspective; we want to give the public a sense of the relative significance of our stories. So we’ve hacked a workaround: a code of assumption embedded in the stories we tell, a language whose grammar is visual (headline size, font) and whose syntax is graphical (page location).

Semantics, however, suggest sympathy; you have to understand those subtle signs in order to make sense of them. Many readers, for no other reason than that they haven’t gone to journalism school, don’t do the former — and therefore can’t do the latter. A better hack would be no hack at all — a system that doesn’t try to work around temporal constraints, but that, instead, restructures its relationship with the news cycle itself. There’s little implicit or necessary about that cycle; like so many other features of journalism’s core workings, it is for the most part an accident of history.

But as much as journalism has evolved with the web, its epistemology — the assumptions it makes about how best to structure and divide and filter lived experience — has remained fairly static. Even the most dashingly experimental of news outlets have generally cleaved to journalism’s traditional method of portioning the world for mass consumption: topical beats. Most reporters cover a particular, defined space — education, the arts, suburban Jersey — and they do so, significantly, from all angles: factual and conceptual, hard and soft, small-angle and wide-. (So when Brian Stelter, for example, covers “the media” for The New York Times, all the levels of complexity that that topic embodies — from nuggets of breaking news to business-deal analyses to step-back, thinkier pieces — fall under his aegis.) It’s a kind of Linnaean approach to our journalistic infrastructure — the same impulse that views a taxonomy of nature, with its neat families and phyla, not as an imposition of order, but as a metaphor for the one that already exists.

And that’s logical, of course; the most common complaint against digital news being its chaotic nature (and, for that matter, the most commonly accepted assumption about it being that we need better filters to keep it coherent), topic-based journalism makes sense. But it also has a side effect: Because we choose, essentially, topic over time as journalism’s core ordering principle, we don’t generally think about time as an order unto itself. Newness, and nowness, become our default settings, and our default objectives. The “tyranny of recency,” Thompson calls it.

Which ends up translating, less elegantly but more specifically, to the tyranny of the news peg. In our current approach to news, ideas and connections and continuities — context, more generally — often become subsidiary to “now” itself. Newness trumps all, to occasionally devastating effect. There’s an economic reason for that, sure (the core of it being that audiences like nowness just as much as journalists). But we also now have tools that invite an intriguing possibility: new taxonomies of time. We have Twitter’s real-time news flow. We have Wikipedia’s wide-angle perspective. We have, above all, the web itself, a platform that’s proven extraordinarily good at balancing urgency with memory. We’d do well to make more of it — if for no other reason than the fact that, as Thompson puts it, “a journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.”

June 16 2010

13:00

Agents of immediacy: Nick Carr on why journalists need to “teach people to pay attention again”

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, and its focus is the new digital landscape of journalism. There are lots of interesting articles, and we're highlighting a few. Here, Internet provocateur Nicholas Carr writes about the tension between immediacy and understanding online. —Josh]

“Thought will spread across the world with the rapidity of light, instantly conceived, instantly written, instantly understood. It will blanket the earth from one pole to the other — sudden, instantaneous, burning with the fervor of the soul from which it burst forth.”

Those opening words would seem to describe, with the zeal typical of the modern techno-utopian, the arrival of our new online media environment with its feeds, streams, texts and tweets. What is the Web if not sudden, instantaneous and burning with fervor? But French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote these words in 1831 to describe the emergence of the daily newspaper. Journalism, he proclaimed, would soon become “the whole of human thought.” Books, incapable of competing with the immediacy of morning and evening papers, were doomed: “Thought will not have time to ripen, to accumulate into the form of a book—the book will arrive too late. The only book possible from today is a newspaper.”

Lamartine’s prediction of the imminent demise of books didn’t pan out. Newspapers did not take their place. But he was a prophet nonetheless. The story of media, particularly the news media, has for the last two centuries been a story of the pursuit of ever greater immediacy. From broadsheet to telegram, radio broadcast to TV bulletin, blog to Twitter, we’ve relentlessly ratcheted up the velocity of information flow.

To Shakespeare, ripeness was all. Today, ripeness doesn’t seem to count for much. Nowness is all.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

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