Ever since I was a very young student, I’ve been told to pay attention and focus – and was sometimes scolded for not doing so.. Both things are obviously important to succeeding in school and in later life. But I have also come to recognize how important it is to ignore some things.
I suppose “ignore” has a negative connotation, so let me clarify. You need to better allocate your limited time, attention and focus to find the most factual, practical and useful knowledge needed to make informed decisions and choices.
A simple example is screen time. Whether the screen is a big flat one on the wall or a small one in your hand, there is more information available there than anyone can view, process or use. The current information age is a time of scrolling and interruptions. You need to be effective at ignoring information that turns out to be wrong factually or just irrelevant. If only filtering information was as easy as turning on a filtration system in your home.
In my lifetime of teaching, I know that teachers are always working with students doing research to be more intelligent and effective at filtering out the irrelevant and inaccurate.
All that sounds good and uncontroversial – but it’s not. Social media has come under increasing pressure to be better at filtering just as we have taught students, but every filtering method has been criticized. They have tried using trained humans but that is slow and not very efficient. They have tried using algorithms and technology but that isn’t always as smart as a human though it is faster and more efficient.
Bias also enter the equation. This past week Facebook and Twitter CEOs faced tough (and sometimes ill-informed) questions about how they operate. Do the platforms filter with a bias that disfavors conservatives and Republican and President Trump, or is that where the most disinformation is generated?
“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” wrote Nicholas Carr his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Can we unplug from the Net and media? Of course, you can. You can hide away in a cabin on a remote mountaintop, but is that a way to live? It’s an extreme reaction.
It makes more sense to improve your filtering, but that isn’t easy. There is no course you can take or an easy list of ten things to do. You can start by knowing that you can’t read every article, tweet, email, Facebook or Twitter post. Can you resist? You’ve probably heard the acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) about the actual physically measurable “fear” people get when they see that badge that says they have unread, unseen content. It’s hard for some people to just ignore or delete without checking.
Carr’s book covers research that shows that this flood of information is more than our brain is configured to handle. TMI – Too Much Information – is literally the case. We take it in and relevant or not our brain tries to categorize and store it. It gets filled like that storage room with a lot of stuff that we don’t need. It’s easier to clean that storage space than clean your brain.
I have taken to watching the half-hour evening news rather than putting on a 24-hour news channel that repeats the same news over and over and adds in a lot of opinions. Do I miss some news? Yes, but I get the major stories and if I want to know more about a story I can easily find it online.
In the same way that tobacco companies used formulas and advertising to keep people wanting more, networks and media platforms work hard at keeping us looking. When one streaming episode or movie ends, another one is queued up for you to continue. When you search for a certain book, video or topic, the Net will certainly suggest others. Going down that rabbit hole is very, very easy. As the title of a book by Adam Alter puts it, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
“Behavioral addiction” is what makes us be obsessed by text messages, emails, likes, and feeds and makes us binge video. We average about three hours each day on our smartphones. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a lot of research and talk about how broadcast television was hurting kids learning. If all that research had some validity, imagine what Millennial, Generations Y and Z, Zoomers and Generation Alpha kids are doing to their brains and learning by the amount of screen time and information they consume.
What can we do? Alter suggests that we reverse engineer behavioral addictions. Good luck with that.