Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 23 Apr 12 12:09
We are delighted to have our own Howard Rheingold (hlr) with us to talk about his new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) will be leading the discussion; and a number of alumni from Howard's online class, MindAmp, through his Rheingold University (http://www.rheingold.com/university/), will be chiming in. Expect this to be wide-ranging and extremely practical. Those of us who have had the good fortune to come under Howard's tutelage can all attest to his mastery of the subject.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 24 Apr 12 13:03
Hello, Howard! And thanks for the intro, Ted! There are many books about the Internet, digital media, and digital culture. What, in your opinion, sets this book apart from the others? What do you hope readers of this book will take away that they can't find elsewhere?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 24 Apr 12 22:57
I don't know of any other books that explain how individuals can do better for themselves and for the rest of the world by knowing how to use social media effectively and mindfully. And I don't mean how to market your product more effectively. Technology has developed much faster than education about the literacies afforded -- compelled -- by mobile phones, search engines, virtual communities, smart mobs, disinfotainment, misinformation, and all the other good and bad innovations that digital media have introduced into our lives. This book, like all my others, is supported by abundant evidence. I did my share of armchair philosophizing about life online until I was called on it by others and reflected on it myself. If you are going to make claims, show the evidence you base them on. In my case, 500 footnotes, most of them with URLs. Unlike my other books, I am the central (but not the only) expert I consulted. And unlike my other books, this one is prescriptive -- full of practical advice about how individuals can personally thrive online and, at the same time, improve the health of the digital commons. As you know, I've been writing about digital media for more than 25 years. Tools for Thought was published in 1985 (http://www.rheingold.com/texts/tft), the same year the WELL started. The Virtual Community, 1993 (http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book), grew out of my experiences on the WELL (and my travels, physical and virtual, to online communities around the world). Smart Mobs, 2012 (http://www.smartmobs.books), grew out of my interest in the convergence of the mobile telephone, the personal computer, and the Internet. In each case, I was asked by critics, scholars, and by myself: "Is this stuff you are forecasting any good for us as individuals and as a society?" In 1985, the "stuff" I forecast referred to personal computers that were less powerful than today's throwaway toys. In 1993, "stuff" meant social communication via computer networks. In 2001, "stuff" meant trillions of text messages, netroots-organized political demonstrations, streaming video from phones. Finally, after a lot of thought and study, I've concluded that the answer to "is this stuff any good for us?" is: "It depends on how many of the billions of people who carry printing presses, broadcasting stations, political organizing tools in their pockets learn how to use these media effectively and mindfully." I've beta-tested the final book on a couple of dozen people I consider to be pretty savvy, and every one of them told me they learned something from it. The reviews haven't come in yet, but at a certain point in a writer's career, he either trusts his instincts or he doesn't. I trust my instinct that this book gives readers a deeply thought-out and empirically buttressed set of actual practices to improve their infotention, participation, collaboration, crap detection, and network awareness skills.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 25 Apr 12 08:27
I don't know of another book that is comprehensive in the same way, and I think that's because you approach the subject as a literacy and not as a tool for marketing or an overview of a particular niche. I think it's useful that you start with a discussion of attention, which is a fundamental of communication and media, and in digital environments is challenged by an abundance of both tools and information. You describe a meditation practice that seems to be inspired by Buddhism, but is offered as a kind of survival skill, a practice of attention management. Can you describe your own methods for getting grounded and managing attention? And possibly sources - what references do you commonly site for cultivation of attention?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Wed 25 Apr 12 11:40
I think we're all aware that always-on, everywhere-available media are challenging both the cognitive aspects of attention (e.g., research by Nass et. al. demonstrates that media multitasking degrades performance for 955 of the population) and social norms (Pew Internet and American Life survey reveals that one in six Americans admit to bumping into something or someone while texting and walking; Sherry Turkle warns about the damage of looking at your smartphone while your child is trying to talk with you; professors need to deal with students who are looking at their laptops in class). From reflection on my own practices to study of the scientific literature, my own meditation practice, and 8 years of experimentation in "attention probes" with my college students, I've come up with some simple and well-documented ways to manage attention. Unlike those who have been claiming that social media compel distraction, I believe that social media don't compel distraction but afford it -- and the difference has to do with whether one takes any steps to manage attention. That's where mindfulness comes in. The term is familiar to many who practice Buddhist meditation, especially simple awareness of awareness. In terms of Buddhist-oriented literature, I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness." In terms of neuroscience-based literature, I recommend Siegel's "The Mindful Brain," Dahaene's "Reading and the Brain," and Wolf's "Proust and the Squid." I wrote a short piece about managing attention to information, which I call "infotention" in an old blog post, which was expanded in the book. The key idea is simple: just as in meditation, the breath is used as a tool for bringing attention back to awareness -- paying attention to attention -- I use visual reminders to enable people to begin developing a kind of inner observer, to develop an awareness of where one is directing attention at any moment, and whether that is serving one's own priorities. Two simple, perhaps oversummarized methods I present at greater length in the book. 1. Only you know your priorities -- where you ought to be directing your attention most of the time. So at the beginning of the day, write down a few goals for the day on a piece of paper (use the old right brain -- handwriting and paper) and place the paper at the periphery of your vision, near your computer screen. 2. Whenever your gaze falls on that piece of paper, simply ask yourself where you are directing your attention and how that relates to your goals for the day. This is meant to be a gentle means of developing mindfulness -- or if that is too spiritual a word, metacognition (Wikipedia has a good entry on metacognition and I cite further resources in the book for those who want to dig deeper). In terms of my own practices, I do spend a great deal of time in front of my screens. Every day, before lunch, I do some yoga and meditation -- in the winter, on the floor of my office, but for the rest of the year on the lawn in my garden. And I walk my dogs in the Marin countryside every day for an hour or two, and when I get to the off-leash area, I turn off my audiobook and pay attention to my breath.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 25 Apr 12 13:03
Though it's there between the line, I don't recall an explicit reference to attention economics in the book. We're coming from an era of mass media, where scarcity of media meant abundant attention which could be sold to advertisers - but with abundant media and scattered/scarce attention, that model breaks down. This is outside the focus of your book, but having just attended a conference for journalists and experienced their bewilderment over the future of their profession, I wonder if you have wisdom to offer about the future of media as business, based on the conceptual territory you've covered in the book?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Wed 25 Apr 12 13:20
I dealt with a couple of aspects of attention economics, but of course I had to make many decisions about what to leave out. I think one of the facts of life that every young person ought to know when they get online is that marvelous tools such as search engines are both public goods that come without a financial price tag, but they are paid for in terms of our attention, which search engines sell to advertisers. I don't believe this is necessarily evil. As you can recall, Jon, I was the editor of Whole Earth Review for four years, a worthy publication that struggled and finally failed financially because of our ideological opposition to advertising revenues. Face it -- advertising, not subscriptions, is what pays for most cultural publications. And I don't have to attend to those ads or click on them. But I think people need to be aware of the way websites seek to keep ("stickiness) our attention or channel it to advertising. Another issue is what is sometimes called "playbor" -- the fact that Flickr or Facebook might give me a cost-free account to share my photographs, but exploit my labor by making money from the use of my material without compensating me financially. Personally, I am happy with this exchange, but I believe the critical uncertainty is whether people understand that their labor is accruing profit to others -- what is known in the medical world as "informed consent." In regard to the future of journalism, if I had a clue to how journalistic enterprises and journalists will be supported financially in the future, I would have started a for-profit or non-profit organization to pursue that clue. So, while as you can see I am happy to pontificate about issues I know something about, I am reluctant to offer solutions to this problem. I will say, however, that while the Internet's abundant sources of news and Craigslist's disintermediation of the classified ads in newspapers are important contributors to their demise: 1. It was the rise of malls and the downfall of department stores that started the decline in revenues for newspapers. 2. The consolidation of thousands of local newspapers into a few large syndicates, and the public ownership of those syndicates, transformed the news-reading public into news-reading markets -- and markets are fickle. 3. Newspapers were among the most profitable enterprises you could get into (c.f. Hearst, Pulitzer, McClatchy, Knight, etc, ) and they had plenty of time to prepare for digital delivery (see the book "Digitizing the News") which they frittered away by spending billions of dollars on "teletext" experiments that disempowered the consumers of news and simply extended the broadcast model to a new medium.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 25 Apr 12 14:30
Increasingly desperate to attract attention that can be monetized, news organizations sensationalize or entertainment-ize news, and this entails distortion and misrepresentation to make stories more saleable. Recently Bill Maher on HBO screened a short by Alexandra Pelosi showing news reports in the wake of the Trayvon Martin suggesting that Black Panther and neo-Nazi tension in Sanford, Florida is media-created mythology: http://youtu.be/mgre4ROq1Wo. I think this is illustrative of the unfortunate state of contemporary media. In your book you talk about media complexity, especially given the proliferation of channels and voices on the Internet. You quote Hemingway: "Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him." What are some of your thoughts about crap detection? How do we know what's real?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Wed 25 Apr 12 15:02
I'm not going so far as to advise people about how to tell what's real, but I do provide some guidance about checking out information that you find or which is provided to you by others online. 1. Think like a detective. Look for clues. 2. Look for an author, search on the author's name. If you don't find an author for a website, use whois and search on the names that turn up there. In the book, I give advice about using several different utilities to check out those who claim to have scientific, medical, or scholarly credentials. 3. Triangulate -- look for three separate sources on reports before you pass them along. 4. Make an effort to pay attention to sources you don't agree with, both people and media. If there aren't people in your personal learning network who regularly annoy you because you so strongly disagree with your opinions, you may be in an echo chamber. I wrote a blog post before I wrote the book: Crap Detection 101 (http://blog.sfgate.com/rheingold/2009/06/30/crap-detection-101/) and I made a video to accompany it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHVvGELuEqM)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 26 Apr 12 05:37
Some (like Nicholas Carr) feel that the relatively shallow, short burst (or what I call drive-by), interrupt-driven nature of social media is making us "dumber." Do you agree with that assessment?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 26 Apr 12 07:46
Back to attention for a moment...can you talk about multi-tasking? There's a lot of theory and debate about it; is it real, is it effective, are there generational differences as to how it is incorporated? How does it play into attention? And maybe later, as we get into practical literacies, how can I get my devices to multitask for me?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Thu 26 Apr 12 08:53
I liked Nicholas Carr's book a lot. He's a compelling writer and, unlike many, offers citations of empirical evidence to back up his claims. However, in my book I take his argument to task in several dimensions. One claim that is clearly specious to any writer is his overdramatized fear of social media as the writer's great distraction. Any writer can tell you that distraction existed in many dimensions long before social media. We writers have the best-weeded gardens, the neatest offices, the most well-washed dishes, the sharpest pencils. The entire world is a potential distraction to a writer and the only real protection is the will to manage one's attention. Which brings me to my first point: If we fear that our use of social media is making us shallow, then why not teach more people how to swim so we can all explore the deep end of the pool. Which is precisely the point of my book: knowing HOW to use social media and HOW to manage one's attention is the critical uncertainty. In regard to the use of social media changing our brains, Carr and I both note that learning to read changes our brains. We are changing our brains all the time. Education and meditation are behavioral tools for managing that change in a productive manner. Maybe Carr is right and we are all dumbing ourselves down. I know that believing that Carr is right is probably going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think we are all the descendants of creatures who thought "there must be some way out of this impossible-looking situation," rather than "the situation looks bleak; I guess I'm doomed." Does mass-media make us dumber? Without a doubt -- if we consume it uncritically (as, unfortunately, so many do). Will social media use make us dumber? Perhaps. But why not try out ways to use these extraordinarily powerful tools to extend our intelligence? Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. But not trying will almost certainly lead us to either misuse or underuse the power of online media.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Thu 26 Apr 12 10:39
Multitasking. First, people need to be aware of the work by Cliff Nass et. al. at Stanford and other supporting research that provides strong evidence that 95% of media multi-taskers are actually degrading their productivity in the component tasks. Multitasking as a more efficient way to work is, for most people, an illusion. Focus for 20-30 minutes on one task, and then switch to multitasking. I also think it's important to recognize that productivity is not the sole criterion. There are instances in which multi-tasking gives us a systems view, a way of perceiving connections, that focused attention does not provide. Metacognition involves not only becoming more aware of the state of one's attention, but becoming knowledgeable about one's mental tools and developing the ability to deploy the best tool for the task at hand. Sometimes, focus is best. Other times, multitasking is best. Developing the ability to recognize and act on the difference is the skill I'm hoping my book will help people learn.
Ari Davidow (ari) Thu 26 Apr 12 10:40
Speaking of dumbing down, in a way. One of the depressing thoughts I had on reading your book (which I loved, and from which I think I learned a lot) is that the people I think most need it are the least likely to read it. For starters, I am noticing how few book readers I know these days--if it can't be condensed to a blog post, does it fit people's lives? Once that was true, but more hidden--I can't count how many homes I have been in that seem to have no bookshelves to complement expensive and clearly well-used TV, er, entertainment centers. So, I guess my question is how the book will penetrate outside of the sphere of people studying social media in your own classes, and those of us who know enough that many of the topics in the book expand knowledge, but aren't necessarily where we first started learning it?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Thu 26 Apr 12 10:55
Each one teach one! Give the book to an open-minded but clue-impaired parent of a young person who is just getting online -- give it to the young person. I created a college syllabus for this book and related material that other college professors are free to modify and use, and I hope it gets modified for high school use: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1whawicjQdSDh1ohWF4-CDnSrrpkjfFtnpc6632vGBv g/edit
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 26 Apr 12 10:56
Just want to note that we've set up a short url for this discussion: http://bit.ly/rheingold-inkwell Distribute far and wide! Also note: you don't have to be a member of the WELL to add a question or comment - just send to inkwell at well.com, and someone will post for you.
Gail (gail) Thu 26 Apr 12 12:21
You can just use the form at the bottom of the most recent comment, even!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 26 Apr 12 13:34
Yes, forgot about that! Back to the question of "dumbing down": I think we've all noticed the very human tendency to assume that an intelligence not-like-ours is a subpar intelligence. So I wonder whether, instead of dumbing down, we're evolving a different kind of "smarts"?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Thu 26 Apr 12 13:45
That's the chapter I had to leave out because I ran up against the word limit in my contract. I'm going to start this very day on a mini e-book for the new TED editions about the possibility of using media in ways that make us smarter, building on the "extended mind" theories of Robert K. Logan, David Chalmers, and Andy Clark. Clark points out that our minds have been in many ways external to our brains for a long time -- try multiplying two five-digit numbers without pencil and paper. The pencil, the paper, and the knowledge of arithmetic procedures are tools that make people smarter. And of course Doug Engelbart ignited the train of innovation that led to personal computers in his 1962 book, "Augmenting Human Intellect."
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 26 Apr 12 13:59
I know Engelbart influenced you quite a bit. Where would we be now, if he hadn't existed? And how much was he influenced by another inventive thinker, Vannevar Bush?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Thu 26 Apr 12 14:08
Engelbart told me that he had been a radar operator in the Pacific in WWII and was sitting in an open-air palm-leafed hut in Manila, awaiting orders for deployment to the invasion of Japan when he read Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" in the August, 1945 issue of the Atlantic. Later, when he started working at Ames Electric in Mountain View, driving through what was then the world's largest fruit orchard, he thought about what to do with the rest of his life. He recalled Bush's article and remembered from his radar experience that patterns could be painted electronically on CRT screens. What if computers could be harnessed to paint those patterns and people could use these devices to solve problems together? Keep in mind that computers of that era, the early 1950s, had less RAM than is used today to paint an icon on a smartphone screen. And don't forget Licklider's article on "Man-Computer Symbiosis." Licklider later funded Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center at SRI. I interviewed Doug Engelbart in person for Tools for Thought and Licklider over the telephone. A couple summers ago, I had Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbert over to my place for dinner. Here's a short video: http://blip.tv/howardrheingold/doug-engelbart-ted-nelson-come-to-dinner-404221 3
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 26 Apr 12 17:02
Also, here's a link to Howard's Net Smart site, for those of you who have not had an opportunity to get his book...yet!!! http://www.rheingold.com/netsmart
You can download the Table of Contents and the first chapter as a free PDF (hlr) Thu 26 Apr 12 19:16
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 26 Apr 12 21:05
What led you to acquire your first computer? Were you aware that computers could be used for communication? Or were you originally just looking for word processing capability?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 27 Apr 12 10:05
Sometime in the early 1980s I was jazzed to read Alan Kay's 1977 Scientific American article on "Microelectronics and the Personal Computer," (http://www.guidebookgallery.org/articles/microelectronicsandthepersonalcompute r) and was particularly intrigued by the idea that I could use a screen and mouse to edit text. I had been writing with an electric typewriter that could erase an entire line at a time but I still had to retype pages after revising them. I was working as a staff writer at the Institute of Noetic Science at that time and one of the trustees was a really interesting guy, Henry Dakin, who died a few years ago. Henry was a geek. He donated a CP/M machine to IONS. At that time, IONS was located in a house in Pacific Heights and they put the CP/M machine in the drained hot tub in the basement. So I climbed into this hot tub, put on my Walkman headset, and happily typed away in Wordstar. I tell this story in Net Smart: I thought that Xerox PARC, where Alan Kay worked when he wrote that article, was the coolest place for a writer to work, so I bugged them until I got a writing job. I commuted to Palo Alto so I could write on an Alto. This was before the Macintosh. PARC led me to Doug Engelbart, and those experiences led me to write Tools for Thought. Some time in the early 1980s I got a modem to use MCI Mail. Then I discovered BBSs. One in particular, Skateboard, had a community that met at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, which is where I met David Hawkins before the WELL started. So yes, I was just looking for a word processor, but it became clear to me when I encountered Engelbart and Licklider that this was not just a better typewriter but had been designed as a mind amplifier.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 27 Apr 12 10:56
How did you come to the WELL? Were you a member before you become Whole Earth Review editor?
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