Monday, March 19, 2007

Stretching out of Media Hibernation...

Even though it's 3 degrees Fahrenheit outside, I can feel spring a-coming (and see it on the weather forecast in the guise of more above-freezing weather to complement the melty stuff we had last week). Along with this feeling, I'm beginning to literally become more active and less media-dependent, as I do each spring. And so I wished to spend a bit of time reflecting on the seasonality of my media use, because every year this pattern seems to recur in some form.

Every year once spring comes (particularly here in Saskatchewan, where it's particularly welcome) I find myself stretching my legs, abandoning the need to watch my TV shows and my insistence on movies. Even when it's cold outside I find myself becoming more active inside the house: spending less time on my computer playing Triple Yahtzee or watching DVDs. More time turning on music and dancing to it. More time thinking about all those physical projects (like sorting through papers) that I've always intended to do but somehow haven't gotten around to yet.

I even find myself making a greater effort to keep in touch with friends and family, which interestingly, with many of those far away, increases my use of communications technology.

So yeah, it really does feel like waking out of a hibernation and rejoining the world of life and activity. It's not that I wasn't joined to it in many ways throughout the winter (including going to the gym), but the motivation to do it more is back, and once again is growing with the ice puddles outside.

I find a similar pattern to be the case with my creative writing--in the spring and summer, I often spend more time collecting new writing material, whereas in the winter, I'm more likely to spend time reflecting on how that material fits into the rest. This year, I find it a bit reversed--the winter seems to have been the simmering time, and now the creativity is starting to churn again (which is quite nice). But no matter which way things go, they always shift about this time.

My question is whether in the northern climes this is an average pattern. Is it just me, or do many of our individual patterns of use of media and communications technology follow a seasonal cycle? And does it affect everyone the same, or like SAD, does it affect some more than others?

Friday, March 09, 2007

It's NEVER Been Done Before?

I love listening to people talking about the web, but whenever I hear the words "this is done now on the web, and it's NEVER been done before" it sets my teeth on edge. And so when I was listening again to the speech David Weinberger, an expert on blogs, gave on the Library of Congress' excellent "Digital Future" series of talks (available to listen free here), and heard him say these words, my teeth gave an answering twitch.

Especially when I'm currently engaged to a very similar analog process to the one he was talking about.

What he was talking about was this: the web of what he calls subjective knowledge between bloggers--people responding to other bloggers, and readers learning from that knowledge. Voice in writing being important in whether people will believe the stuff or not. People pointing away from the current writing by "linking" to other writings.

I'm halfway through an academic thesis in the humanities, and I say "pshaw" to the idea that these things have never been done before. Has David Weinberger ever read through any significant body of academic writing, or tried to write a paper in response to it? What is good academic essay writing but a series of links provided in citations? What is a good research/response essay than a response directly stating an opinion (agreement/disagreement/partial agreement) about what another critic has been saying?

And anyone who's tried to read lots of critical essays is pretty aware that voice is a huge element of whether this genre is taken seriously.

This is not to say that David Weinberger's talk isn't an excellent one, worth re-listening to even 3 years (so long in web time) after it was first given. And I'm actually quite fascinated by what he has to say about forgiveness and unselfishness as being key elements of blogging. (Forgiveness because the writing isn't as polished and many readers accept that before reading, unselfishness because of the linking.) Especially because bloggers are so often accused of egotism and sloppiness.

But as to the fact that a web of semi-subjective knowledge (complete with links to other bits of knowledge it's responding to) has NEVER been done before, I say "pshaw." I'm in the midst of reading sources and creating an 80-page paper that proves that's not the case.

This connection between what happens in blogging and academic writing does give me a fascinating idea/analogy for teaching university students what academic writing's all about, however. Those raised to be web- and My Space-literate, if they're taught how to harness those skills for academic writing, could bode well for the future of academic writing. What a fascinating thought.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Beef about the (Mis)Use of the Phrase "Attention Span"

Those who talk about the deterioration of our attention spans from new technology tend to use that blanket term for many things that aren't actually attention-span-related.

For instance, I've heard people say that frequent email-checking shows that we can't focus on a single task at a time anymore and that our attention spans have become fractured and unstable.

I disagree.

For one thing, frequent checking of email shows we have an amazing attention span for keeping up with our email, and many people have so integrated it into their daily work that it really doesn't detract that much focus from other tasks, just becomes a matter of course.

Of course, there are times where an interesting email--or an urgent one--distracts from those other tasks. And there can be times when that normally-integrated task claims more attention than the other things.

That can be good or it can be bad.

I've noticed that those who complain about short attention spans of people usually have a stake in the other tasks, not in attention to the email. Those who would like to break through those other tasks using email are likely to complain that you don't check email frequently enough (or respond quickly enough) if you don't respond right away.

What really seems to be happening here is a kind of weird expectations upheaval. Because of the possibility of "instant" communication, it becomes more and more necessary for people to communicate what "ASAP" means (and what's possible), and manage the sort of anxiety that used to be present only at mailtime when one was expecting a particularly interesting or important letter. Whether you view that focus favorably or negatively depends on whether you would call focus to a single task over others great passion and attention or whether you would call it obsession.

This kind of anxiety isn't something that didn't happen in the past--there were many times people were worried about a single topic to the point where they at times ignored other things, and the question of what people prioritize certainly isn't a new one. But the technology today--and its attendant upheaval in expectations--seems to be exacerbating both the possibility of such passions, and the negative view of them by those whose tasks aren't part of them.

I find it particularly fascinating that these passions/obsessions continue in this new technology--a new technology that gets credited so often with shortening our attention spans.

Another related fascination I have is that our Western society is so used to the concept of multi-tasking by now that when a person chooses to uni-task a bit more, they find that difficult to deal with (sometimes rightly, sometimes not), even though I would argue that new media encourage that sort of passion/obsession (think of online poker players, for instance) almost as much as it encourages the culture of multi-tasking.