The Independent Project: An Inspiring Experiment in Student-Designed Learning
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Net Smart: a call for mindful engagement with technology

NetSmart-coverHoward Rheingold shared some highlights of what he's learned and taught about being "Net Smart" Monday night at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. Acknowledging the growing chorus of criticism of the growing prominence of online media - and it propensity for distraction, diversion and delusion - he noted that critique is necessary, but not sufficient, in the cultivation of practices that enable us to successfully adopt and adapt to new technologies. To help fill this gap, Howard enumerated and explained what he calls the Five Fundamental Literacies that are essential to use technology intelligently, humanely and mindfully: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network know-how. The book represents a carefully curated collection and distillation of wisdom from Howard and a broad array of other net luminaries, with over 500 end notes and an index that is over 30 pages long. I haven't actually read the book yet - it was just published this week, and Monday night was his first book talk - so the notes that follow are based primarily on Howard's presentation ... and biased by my own particular interests and interpretations.

Howard led off with the literacy of attention, a topic about which he and I have both learned a lot from Linda Stone. He described experimenting with attention probes during classes he teaches, ringing a chime at various times and asking students to report what they were thinking or where their mind was at during that moment, a form of what I might call experience sampling mindfulness (riffing on experience sampling method). Howard defined the term infotention, which I initially interpreted as a mashup of information and attention, but also suspect it involves intention, as he went on to say that the application of attention to intention is how the mind changes the brain (e.g., through the use of mandalas & mantras), and shared a pithy neuroscientific mantra to explain this connection: "neurons that fire together, wire together".

Moving on to the literacy of crap detection, or the "critical consumption of information", Howard showed that if you google "martin luther king", one of the top hits is to a site entitled "Martin Luther King, Jr. - A True Historical Examination". I was immediately reminded of Margaret Thatcher's insight:

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.

I don't want to make too much of a connection between being powerful and being truthful - in fact, I suspect they tend to be rather oppositional, e.g., speaking truth to power - but I suspect that many sites claiming to be about the "truth" of a matter are not actually about the truth of that matter. In investigating the truth behind the "true historical examination" of MLK, Howard demonstrated that conducting a simple "whois" search reveals that the registered site owner is Don Black, who is associated with the Stormfront White Nationalist / White Pride resource page.

Howard summarized his recommendations for effective crap detection

  • think like a detective, look for clues
  • search to learn (don't stop with first search, or the first page of results)
  • look for authors, search on their names
  • triangulate (find 3 different sources)

Expanding on the importance of consulting diverse sources, Howard also recommended including people and organizations with different perspective in your regular information network, because "if nobody in your network annoys you, you are in an echo chamber". Having long thought - and recently written - about the idea of the irritation-based innovation, I found myself ruminating about the value of irritation-based learning.

Howard is an inspiring innovator in the realm of learning. I believe he coined the term peeragogy, a mashup of "peer" + "pedagogy", which denotes a highly participatory form of learning (an example of which is The Independent Project I wrote about recently). I have been an intermittent participant in his Peeragogy Handbook Project, and strive to practice & facilitate - not just read (or write) about - more participatory student-centered learning in my own educational endeavors.

Speaking of such endeavors, I want to turn my attention toward my intention to prepare for next week's classes. One of the costs of teaching is that I rarely have time for any "outside" activities, such as attending book talks ... or writing about them afterward. Howard told me he rarely gives book talks any more, so I'm glad that we both took the time to converge on Elliott Bay Books this week. It was well worth the effort, not just to see and hear Howard, but also for the serendipitous opportunity to meet other co-learners and to learn more from their questions and comments. Several of them referenced other interesting books, which I've added to my list of future reads ... but those will have to wait until after "Net Smart".

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