Technology Gets in the Zone
Our equipment changes how we process, how we remember, and what we produce. As Nietzsche said, “our equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” The trick is to hack the advantages of each, and be ready to shift equipment as one type of equipment or interface is better for the purpose. And even if we don’t know exactly what we want from each form of equipment, using diverse equipment will diversify the input that goes into our analysis, memory, and output. In short diversify equipment, expand learning.
If our equipment changes how we analyze, input, and produce information, can we use this to our advantage? This is exactly how Benjamin Franklin described the way he taught himself how to write. He took an essay whose style he wanted to emulate, made a sort of an outline. He gave himself time to forget the original, then fleshed the outline out again. He also switched between essay and poetry and back. Could this approach take advantage of different equipment we commonly use to learn and share information? I could envision giving an assignment in which students are asked to make a PowerPoint presentation of a paper, including all important figures. Then they could be asked to write a scientific paper from that PowerPoint (it would be tricky to reliably take away access to the original paper for the second part of the assignment, but I’m sure something could be done). I can imagine paper notes to be used during the lecture-format portion of a class, and laptops to be used for in-class review for example to generate a list of questions about the material in a google document.
Every technology comes with pushback. They are tools with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. So what are our goals, the things we want to increase through technology and avoid disrupting? How do we optimize?
I see three main goals of technology and format which both aid learning and enable learning to be better utilized:
- To enable communication
- To enhance productivity, either individually or as a group
- To complement individual faculty – augmenting skills and opening access to enjoyable challenges
For each of these goals our use of our use of technology, equipment, and medium will affect them.
The point is to optimize the positive effects and utilize a diversity of effects, knowing that there is no form of learning that does not use a medium of some sort. Does this piece of equipment in this context put you into communication or out of it? Does more get accomplished in the end because of it – either individually or as a group? Does it facilitate challenge and interest, or is it leading to worry, to apathy, and distraction? Is a tool that draws you to be constantly “thinking about the task [you] weren’t doing,” or helps you is it something that helps you do the thing you were doing better?
A number of people have talked about how Plato critiqued writing as a new-fangled technology that would inhibit real learning and thinking. This is often in the context of making a point like “well we know writing is a critical tool for our individual and societal development, so now we know his critique of this new technology was invalid – a fear of something new.” I’m not sure this argument holds. We do know that writing is critical. But listen to his explanation:
Writing… has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.
Although in other places his criticism is harsher, the point he makes here is that writing can’t replace interpersonal communication, and has weaknesses in that it cannot replicate the accountability and inspiration of interpersonal communication. To this extant I think his comment is very valid and many modern technologies address exactly this weakness of writing, making written word more interactive.
I’m sure Plato would be happy to know we have not abandoned spoken conversations as a format in education. Now we chose among many formats and technologies as we need to. For example, in order to become a PhD candidate, I had to pass an oral exam. The biggest exam and most formal exam I will probably have to take in my education is actually very Socratic in its structure. We pick the format we want to use for the purpose at hand. (Still, I am glad he did not live to see the invention of the scantron….)
Technology is a huge enabler of productivity. But this is an area that is rife with paradoxes and optimization problems. As science and technology writer Clive Thompson says we are “social thinkers”
and technology that enables communication makes us more able and productive as a whole. I would argue that productivity (in some form or another) is an almost automatic byproduct efficient communication. (I don’t argue that this productivity automatically produces something that is necessarily good – effort and wisdom will always be important.) Technology (whether it’s a bugle, pen and paper, or a super computer) is critical to communication-derived productivity. I really wish google docs were around when my debate partner and I were writing up case briefs in high school. I had an online class once in which we each had to post questions to a forum, and we could get credit for answering them as well. The professor would clarify points we couldn’t. My lab’s collaborators meet regularly via WebEx, which has options for screen share, document share, and chatting – a Skype for professionals.
When it comes to an individual productivity, the story is more nuanced. On an individual level, productivity has a lot to do with an ability to focus, not just on topical knowledge, ability, and insight. Technology certainly effects our focus. Our technology effects the way we process information as we acquire it, the way we avoid distraction and prioritize information, and how we “get in the zone” really engaging in what we do. The effect is very individual by person and context. Sometimes technology streamlines this. Other times simpler is better. If I have writer’s block or am trying to jot down a poem without disrupting my flow of thought, you better believe the pen and paper is coming out.
The big productivity risk of technology comes with multitasking. Since reading about the 2009 study done at Stanford on the disadvantage of multitasking on mental performance, I have been trying to be more conscious about focusing on one thing at a time and not letting myself think or work on something else until it is finished. What is interesting is that multiprocessors were pulled from a group of people who regularly multi-process via technology. That said, I found a lot of benefit from tying to make a point to consciously say “this is what I am thinking about for this next minute or so.” And this helped me while I was doing work on a computer. I needed the computer to accomplish what I wanted to do. I also needed to be conscious about how I use it. I noticed something while I was trying this that goes beyond an increase in productivity. The increased focus came with clarity and motivation.
Flow – Or being in the zone
If productivity is a sign of equipped social thought, then being “in flow” is a sign of well-quipped individual thought. Being in flow is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.” I like to call it being in the zone. It is essentially the signature of someone who sustainably and intrinsically enjoys what they do. Flow comes from feeling both challenged and skilled. It has seven basic features:
- Focus, concentration
- Clarity – know what to do
- Sense of the challenge being doable, even if hard
- Serenity, loss of a sense of self (too focused on something bigger)
- Intrinsic motivation
What I noticed when I chose not to multi-process is that a I noticed a number of features of being “in flow” increase in addition to the obvious increase in focus. Even when I don’t particularly enjoy the things I was doing at that point. I had more clarity, a sense that I could finish what I was working on, and less of a worry about waiting time or of paying attention to it. I wouldn’t say that my busywork acquired more ecstasy, but it was more enjoyable.
In other words, we have a significant about of control over how much our work resembles being in flow, even busy work. We don’t have to reach the frenzied passion of an inspired artist to take advantage of flow by degree as part of the way we are wired as humans. One of my new goals as a teacher (and as a learner!) is to encourage myself and my students to find as many of these seven features in whatever work we do to whatever extent it is up to us.
Focus. Skills. And challenge.
And a diversity of technologies to help you do it.