Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Kids Need a Charter for Smart Internet Use

Chronic use of any infotech boosts stress, saps creativity. Here's a solution

The forces unleashed to market internet products are so powerful and entrenched, in every sphere including the educational, that it requires a uniquely strong and conscious philosophical/pedagogical effort, not so much to resist the forces as to gain the time and leeway necessary to channel information technology (IT) wisely and sidestep its more deleterious effects. Those forces include, at school level, the pressure from parents to see a given school appear, at all costs, "cutting edge" and proactive in the IT sphere.

It seems clear that making the effort to use IT wisely involves no more, no less than coming up with an educational charter for optimum use of electronic media and information technology. (For the sake of brevity, I'll use IT as a catch-all term from now on, to include everything from your Mac's OS to Instagram, from the Cloud to text messages, to the idea of cyberspace in general). Such an effort would have as objective to form an active learning culture in a wired age—as opposed to passively being formed by it. Here is a quick sketch of what I think such a charter might look like.

This charter is in two parts, the first to control and shape the use of IT, the second to stimulate creativity in the learning process. (Obviously I'm emphasizing pedagogical aspects here, but in truth what we're discussing applies to all research, indeed any mindful examination of the world around us.)

Thus, the first part: Right use of IT:

1. Choose

a. Focus on what you're trying to research and learn, as opposed to what is being offered or sold to you.

b. Always find out who wrote/posted/authored what.

c. In research, drill down to primary sources: Direct experience, eye-witnesses, and firsthand research are always preferable to secondhand reports, articles, blog posts etc. The learning curve of fieldwork tends to be far steeper than any other kind of research

2. Filter

Systematically weed out from your process all gossip (Facebook, for example), opinion, personal rants (Twitter), information based primarily on flashy graphics ( a huge percentage of Powerpoint, Youtube videos), Web constructs (games etc.) aimed at titillating the cerebellum but not feeding the reflective brain.

3. Learn

a. Internet protocols and programming languages define how we use IT. It's therefore imperative to learn the basics at least of html, Java, C, C+, or other programming and communication coding

b. Examine the ecology of IT: how information packets are sent and distributed, who furnishes the physical "pipes" and servers, why the vast majority of hits are concentrated on sites owned by a tiny percentage of companies; where censorship is a concern. We view the internet spatially, like everything else: what would a map of the wired world look like?

The second part: Counterbalance

1. Cut out

Power down the devices daily. This means systematically including in one's day, one's week, regular periods of time in which we switch off all devices, from cellphone to laptop to radio and television. In practice, this also involves coping with addiction to IT, and learning how to neutralize it. (Much research backs up the contention that unrestricted and semi-constant use of IT tools, be they smartphones or X-boxes, results in blurred tasks and, in the long run, atrophied mental powers. For some reason this is still seen as a radical concept.

2. Connect:

Learn to involve other people in those non-IT portions of the day. This includes not only, say, team homework but also face to face, interpersonal debate, conversation, and play.

3. Create

When contemplating a task, or simply imagining one, whether it be schoolwork, hobbies, games, social interaction, devote at least part of the available time to thinking without the help or distraction of IT devices. In practice this might mean actually taking notes in longhand or making sketches, even walking in the park (without the smartphone) to daydream ways around a problem. A deep objective of this sort of practice is to regain attention span lost to IT, and recover the ability to focus deeply.

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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