attention deficits and thick descriptions

A few days late, but this is an interesting article:

It’s an assertion I’ve heard many times when a child has attention problems. Sometimes parents make the same point about television: My child can sit and watch for hours — he can’t have A.D.H.D.

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are complex behavioral and neurological connections linking screens and attention, and many experts believe that these children do spend more time playing video games and watching television than their peers.

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out.

The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

This is a reminder of a point that I’ve been trying to make for a long time: we can’t make useful generalizations about “screens.” You have to ask, “Which screens? What’s on the screens? Who’s using the screens? What would they be doing if they weren’t using these screens?” In the same way, we can’t draw sweeping generalizations about whether social media are good or bad, whether they enable revolutions or make revolutions impossible. Screens, social media, computers, digital technologies of all sorts — they just aren’t “good” or “bad.” We need thick descriptions of our online lives, and right now the available descriptions are pretty thin.

That’s not surprising; online life is new, so the serious study of online life is (necessarily) newer. But I am craving richer, more detailed, more stringently controlled, thicker studies of how we live now.

Enough! or, Too much!

Kevin Kelly:

Today some 4.5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives. Words have migrated from wood pulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, game consoles, televisions, billboards and tablets. Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper, but flitter on a glass surface in a rainbow of colors as fast as our eyes can blink. Screens fill our pockets, briefcases, dashboards, living room walls and the sides of buildings. They sit in front of us when we work — regardless of what we do. We are now people of the screen. And of course, these newly ubiquitous screens have changed how we read and write.

I’ve said this before, ad nauseam no doubt, but: please. There is no such thing as “the screen.” A laptop screen is not a TV screen is not a movie screen is not an iPad screen is not a Kindle screen. They’re all different, and we experience them in significantly different ways. And “letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper”? Really? All these books and magazines and newspapers and memoranda that I encounter every day are figments of my imagination?

Please, Kevin, stop it. Just stop it. Lose the oracular pronouncements and think about what you’re saying.

those darn screens again

As I have commented on several occasions, errors like the ones noted in my previous post often occur because people are working with a reductive and simplistic notion of what “the screen” is like. But as I have said before, often, there are may different kinds of screens, and we interact with them in different ways.Let’s keep that in mind as we read this lament from Tim Adams:

The growth in sales of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader – which can store thousands of texts, classic and otherwise, and which may eventually provide digital access to every book ever written – suggests that we are at an iPod moment: books, in particular novels, may well be about to face the fate of records and CDs. In America, Google is currently fighting a multi-million dollar lawsuit for the rights to 10m digital editions of books – a suit being countered by the French and German governments among others – which if successful will grant it a virtual monopoly over distribution of the digital word. This prompts a couple of questions: is reading from a screen the same experience as reading from a page? And further, is writing for a digital medium the same thing as writing for print?The answers to these questions are maybe not as simple as they at first seem. One consequence of the digitisation of nearly all aspects of our lives is the increasing sense that we live through our computers, that they are extensions of our selves. Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been examining this phenomenon for nearly 30 years. In her prophetic book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, written as long ago as 1995, she suggested that our relationship with our laptops and hand-held devices gave us a Freudian sense of the uncanny. “Like dreams and beasts, the computer stands on the margins,” she wrote. “It is a mind that is not yet a mind. It is inanimate, yet interactive. It does not think, yet neither is it external to thought. It is an object, ultimately a mechanism, but it behaves, interacts and seems in a certain sense to know.”All our engagement with the digital world carries elements of this mostly subconscious relationship. . . .

Notice how quickly, how seamlessly, Adams moves from “a screen” to “our computers” — as though reading on “a screen,” any old screen, simply is reading on “our computers.” But there’s not just one kind of screen. Though I have some reservations about the Kindle — often noted on this blog — one of the things I like about it is that it’s so hard to do anything except read on it. It’s not quite a single-use device, but it’s close (ever tried to use its Paleolithic web browser?), and if Steve Jobs is right in his frequent assertion that people are always going to want highly adaptable multi-use devices — like the iPod, or the much-rumored Apple tablet — and single-use devices will consequently fall by the wayside . . . well, I think that would be sad. Because the fact that the Kindle screen is nearly a single-use screen is one of the things I most like about it.I’m really tired of the “At the Movies” model so many people employ in these debates: you get one thing (“the screen”) to vote on, and you have to give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It’s way past time for judgments that simplistic to be featured, as they regularly are, in highly reputable and putatively serious periodicals.

recovering your reading mojo

David Ulin has a problem:

Sometime late last year — I don't remember when, exactly — I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That's a problem if you do what I do, but it's an even bigger problem if you're the kind of person I am. Since I discovered reading, I've always been surrounded by stacks of books. I read my way through camp, school, nights, weekends; when my girlfriend and I backpacked through Europe after college graduation, I had to buy a suitcase to accommodate the books I picked up along the way. . . . So what happened? It isn't a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. . . . In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.

I’ve been there myself. A couple of years ago I was in Ulin’s condition, and it was worrying me a good deal. I thought I might have entered into a state of permanent and inescapable distraction. However, I did escape, and the prime aid to my recovery of my old long-attention-span self was . . . the Kindle. Yes, that’s right. I have written earlier on this blog about the positive reading momentum the Kindle can generate: I went through a period when I read about twenty books in a row on the Kindle, and after I did, I had my reading mojo back. Interestingly, once I got it back I lost a good deal of interest in the Kindle, and I haven't read many books on it in the last six months or so. Im not sure quite what to make of that, but I will always be thankful to the gadget for the restorative work it did on me.

accept my cyborg self!

Danah Boyd doesn't just want to be a cyborg, she wants to be accepted as a cyborg. Recently at a conference she was criticized for fooling around on the web rather than paying attention to the speakers. This upsets her. Interestingly, she doesn't do what — in my experience, anyway — most people similarly accused do: she doesn't claim Awesome Multitasking Powers. She freely admits that she wasn’t paying much attention to the conference speakers, but says that people don't listen to speakers at conferences anyway — “I don't think that people were paying that much attention before” laptops — and anyway she learned a lot while looking up words the speaker used on Wikipedia instead of trying to follow the argument. “Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.” For Boyd, the criticism she received is a function of two things: first, an “anti-computer attitude,” and second, a refusal to “embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts.” (Stop trying to crush my spirit of inquiry!) In response to all this I have a few questions. My chief one is this: why go sit in a room where someone is lecturing if you so conspicuously aren't interested? Or why not quietly edge out if a particular talk leaves you cold? That way you don't have to subject yourself to boring stuff — you can do your “learning and thinking and engaging” somewhere with coffee and pastries — and you don't distract, by your ceaseless typing and mousing, people who are trying to listen? And one more: If you can learn via Twitter and Wikipedia, couldn't you also — just possibly — learn by listening to another human being for a while? Lord knows there are more than enough dreary lecturers in the world — “Earth to boring guy,” as Bart Simpson once said — but some people speak rather well. Think of the best TED talks: do you really want to be staring at your screen and typing while those are going on? All I am saying: Give listening a chance.

the Kindle saga, part . . . um, whatever

I have already related the lamentable tale of the loss of my Kindle. I now have an update. I didn't buy that Kindle with my own money: there’s a very generous research budget associated with the chair I currently hold at Wheaton which I used for that purchase, and I recently learned that the college’s insurance covers the loss. Which allows me to get a replacement. So I did. My Kindle 2 arrived a couple of weeks ago, in a much more compact package than the original had. I opened the box, pulled the clean new thing out, and . . . dropped it on my hardwood floor. Yep. Before I had even turned it on. The original Kindle had a rubberized back that made it easy to grip. I knew that the Kindle 2 was differently constructed — though I didn't know exactly how — but I think that at that first opening I was subconsciously handling it the way I handled its predecessor. Which, it turned out, wasn’t firmly enough. I picked it up, plugged it in, turned it on . . . and yes, the screen was damaged. Just in the upper-right-hand corner. The wonky area is small enough that it doesn't prevent me from reading any text, though, as I quickly discovered, it keeps me from seeing my battery charge. I looked into my options, and decided that the second-cheapest one would be to buy a two-year extended warranty for $65, which allows for one exchange of a Kindle you;ve damaged. I can do that if I’ve had the machine for less than thirty days — so it’s actually still a possibility. But I’m not going to do it. Even though it wasn’t my money per se, I’ve now given Amazon nearly eight hundred bucks for Kindles, and that’s enough. I can use the one I have perfectly well — though, as I have noted in earlier posts, I’m not as enamored of the thing as I once was, and the DRM issues are making me increasingly itchy. Incidentally, while the Kindle 2 is an improvement in some ways — better resolution, a more logical way of putting it to sleep and waking it, etc. — I find it more awkward to handle. I really miss the rubberized back, and would even if I hadn’t dropped the damned thing.

Then, Voyager

Voyager (which I mentioned in a previous post) was one of the coolest companies around in the Nineties; I was a devoted customer. I bought Voyager Expanded Books: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World (though it may not have had that title then). Books on floppy disk! Annotatable! Variable text sizing! — really, they were amazingly similar to Kindle books, except on my Mac. If I remember rightly, If Monks Had Macs was on floppy too, though at some point Voyager’s products shifted to CD-ROM. I believe the first CD-ROM I ever bought was Voyager’s edition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: looking through its collection of period documents, commentary by Spiegelman, and taped interviews with his father, I felt that I had entered some brave new world. But trying to read the book on screen was annoying as hell (screens weren’t very large in those days). I bought a “tour of the Louvre,” some kind of “animals of the world” disc featuring a tiny movie with narration by James Earl Jones, and a collection of simply animated folk songs of the world. Only the last captured the attention of my son, then a toddler: he would sit on my lap for an hour watching and listening to the Kookaburra song and “Shalom Aleichem” and some haunting Swedish song that I can’t quite recall now. Good times, good times. Voyager was state of the art then — plus, most of their stuff was written in my beloved HyperCard — and I probably thought that they had identified the future of multimedia communications. What I didn't know, and probably what Voyager didn't know either, was that this nascent entity called the World Wide Web was about to change everything. It’s interesting, in light of subsequent history, to note that the one Voyager product line that has survived and thrived is the one that might have seemed least innovative at the time: the Criterion Collection of classic films.

marginal technology

Via Adam Keiper, my editor here at The New Atlantis, I see this fascinating story about . . . well, several things, but primarily about the efforts of Bob Stein — founder of the Voyager Company and then, more recently, the Institute for the Future of the Book — to create more deeper and more meaningful communities of reading. Virtual communities, that is: Stein says, “This is the billion-dollar question, How do you model [an online] conversation, a real conversation, among a large number of people?” He’s trying to achieve this primarily through CommentPress, which is basically a celebration of marginalia. (Here’s a long, scholarly article on CommentPress by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.) How you feel about this project may largely depend on how you feel about actual marginalia. When you check out a library book, or peruse a used book, that has commentary in the margins, are you disgusted or intrigued? My default position is disgust, but I think that’s largely because most marginal commentary is not especially intelligent. It also tends to be sloppy — Can't you people underline more neatly? Please! — and intermittent. More often than not it starts out boldly but peters out altogether after a few pages. Of course, if you know and are interested in the person writing in those margins the situation is wholly different. People used to lend books to the poet Coleridge so they could get them back with the great man’s annotations, which they typically found more interesting that the books themselves. When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis I took great delight in looking through volumes he had owned to see what he had written in the margins. In that case also it was what the other writers had prompted Lewis to think that intrigued me. The margins were what mattered to me; the text itself was, to my mind, . . . well, marginal. At least for that moment. The question I have about CommentPress, then, is this: Where does it direct our attention? Is it about illuminating the books under discussion? Or are the books there instrumentally, to serve as prompts for community-building? I suppose this will vary from case to case, but Bob Stein’s remarks suggest that the real goal is to connect people, with books as means to that end. Which is not a problem, as far as I’m concerned; that’s a worthy use for books.

get your paper here!

Farhad Manjoo on what’s good about reading actual newspapers:

But both versions of the Kindle are missing what makes print newspapers such a perfect delivery vehicle for news: graphic design. The Kindle presents news as a list—you're given a list of sections (international, national, etc.) and, in each section, a list of headlines and a one-sentence capsule of each story. It's your job to guess, from the list, which pieces to read. This turns out to be a terrible way to navigate the news. Every newspaper you've ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day's stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don't have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.

Those of you who thought I was uncritically admiring of the Kindle earlier — by the way, you should really go back and read all my Kindle-tagged posts — will now think that I’m slamming it. But not at all: I post, you decide. About the Kindle, as about other matters, I’m fair, balanced, and unafraid.

embedded previews from Google Books

Google says I can now embed certain passages from Google Books — those books with previews — on my website. Let’s see if it works:  Hmm. Well, sort of. You don't seem to be able to choose what you want to show — I thought I was choosing to embed a portion of the text, but evidently not. Not sure what this is good for.