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Connected schools, the generation gap, and distraction

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Molly Milton | 19:55 UK time, Wednesday, 9 September 2009

As Aleks and I discussed in the last blog post, Programme Four is about the web and us. We aim to find out whether there such a thing as 'homo internet-icus', or whether the web, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said, is "a mirror of society". When we study the web does it reveal that we are changing, or does it actually reveal more about ourselves and our social networks?

Big themes that we want to cover include:
  • Generation Google
  • Viral Culture
  • Friendship and social connections online and in the real world
  • Whether our brains are being re-wired
  • Distraction & Multi-tasking
  • Collaborative Intelligence

People who say interesting things about these themes include:
  • Duncan Watts
  • Robin Dunbar
  • Sherry Turkle
  • Baroness Susan Greenfield
  • Jonah Peretti
  • Steven Johnson
  • Bill Wasik
  • Nick Carr
  • David Nicholas
  • Maggie Jackson

Connected Kids

Dan Biddle mentioned in last week's round up that we are looking for examples of how the web is helping children make connections to other children in countries very different to their own.

Do you know of a school that has become virtually connected? I'd like to film a dialogue, ideally between 10-12 years olds (though they could be a bit older) from a non-UK (preferably Asian) country communicating with UK kids of the same age. It has to be a project that has been ongoing for long enough that the children have some relationship already. As readers of the last blog post will know, I've been thinking about South Korea as a good country to film in for a variety of reasons - but I am open to other suggestions.

Mind the Generation Gap

Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web twenty years ago. Now the children who were born around then (including Sir Tim's own!) are becoming adults; the first generation of real web natives. Never again will there be such a divide between those who have grown up with this new technology and those who haven't. We are looking for a 'Generation Web' family: parents who really feel there is a chasm between their world and the world of their kids. Anecdotally we've also heard that there are web-generation gaps between siblings; they are not just Generation Net, but sub-divided they include Generation YouTube, Generation Facebook and Generation Bebo. If you are such a family or know of a family just like this, please do let us know.

Distracted by Distraction

It's often been said that the greatest casualty of our mobile age is our attention. I know that I'm endlessly distracted by emails, text messages, phone calls, status updates - but what I'm looking for are real examples of someone's distraction changing the world in a significant way.
Earlier this year, it is alleged that because the majority leader of the New York Senate was distracted by a blackberry, his action was then responsible for the power balance in the New York Senate to switch from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Are there any other stories like this out there? Or even video clips - such as the moment when the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi delayed greeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a NATO summit because he was on his mobile.


  • Comment number 1.

    I had thought of including this at the bottom of my addiction post, but this is more appropriate.

    8 Practical Tips to Cure Your Internet ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)

    If you've not seen the below it might interest you:

    "Using the latest brain-scanning technology, scientists at the UCLA Medical School have discovered that constant immersion in digital worlds is creating new neural networks in the left front part of the brain (the dorso- lateral prefrontal cortex) that cause digital natives to 'respond faster' to digital stimulation, but it has been found that they also 'code information differently' and “have shorter attention spans” than digital immigrants."

    "Constant and prolonged exposure to digital technology is creating new neural circuits in our brains and weakening older, more established ones... "

    "Some psychologists argue that ADHD is not truly a diagnostic disorder but rather the brain’s adaptation to its continual exposure to multiple bits of data delivered through today’s fast-paced technology. They contend that ADHD is not an illness but simply the result of new wiring patterns."

    Molly, TaiwanChallenges and A_PERSON_NOT_A_BOT may all be interested in the below.

    "A study performed at Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan set out to investigate the links between emotional conditions such as anxiety, depression and ADHD and Internet addiction. Two thousand fourteen students, 1204 male and 910 female, were assessed for all of the above factors using a self-report questionnaire."

  • Comment number 2.

    SheffTim, the article you link to states: Internet addiction is often an attempt to escape from negative emotions and unwanted situations.

    So which is the cause and which is the effect?

    Is internet addiction causing problems in society? Or are problems in society causing people to take refuge in a world they have more control over?

    ADHD I'm not so sure about. It's not a big problem here, compared to what I read about western countries. Is that because even from a young age kids have to spend long hours in school focusing on one thing at a time?

  • Comment number 3.

    Molly, I don't have anything already underway but it's easy enough for me to find you a school group in Taiwan willing to connect. Wouldn't the 'first contact' to friendship process be more interesting to observe?

  • Comment number 4.

    I have already sent DigRev links elsewhere to the Isle of Man Educational Department as somewhere considered to be Excellent in their embrace of the internet and the Web. As a means of unifying the Island's Schools, Teachers and Pupils as well as Parental involvement the whole Island adopted one standard of equipment, Apple and put all schools online with excellent facilities. In world wide connectiveness terms this has resulted in a Community where not only do the teachers and pupils interact with their contemporaries abroad but the IoM Educational Department and it's schools regularly receive visits from Foreign dignitaries intent on finding out how to learn and share the success. I loved the Primary School pupils movie news report that had them interviewing visitors from Moscow, and every School has a website often maintained by the pupils themselves!


  • Comment number 5.

    Good comments which may be of interest on the points about distraction and lack of attention (texting/iPods/talking) on the BBC Radio 2 Folk msg board thread 'Audiences at Folk Festivals' and especially Messages nos: 10, 11, 15, 17, 19 and 24.


    It would seem to be youth playing with technology and adults with no manners!

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for these thoughts - and also some relevant comments on the previous blog post. Molly's out and about today, but she or Dan B will respond on Monday.

    In the meantime, do watch our video of Susan Greenfield expressing her concerns about the impact of the web on our brains, and the need for more research, and let us know what you think.

  • Comment number 7.

  • Comment number 8.

    Re Attention - I would like to draw your attention ;) - in particular to Howard Rheingold and his talk at the Recent Rebooting Britain - I think you may find this relevant in this context:


    I have only just stumbled across this site and I would also draw your attention to his forthcoming Stanford course in which he outlines the concept of Mindful Infotention


    - I am interviewing him on tis at the end of the month - you may want to pay him a visit on your travels:

  • Comment number 9.

    What will the web do to us? That’s an important and timely question, and one that we all should be asking.
    I’m not a scientist, but I’m an author who has spent years studying the science of attention for my latest book, and a journalist who’s written about the social impact of technology for more than a decade.
    Greenfield is right to point out that our technologies are surely shaping us, at least in the short term. Our environment absolutely shapes our highly plastic brains. “Background” television is linked to attention-deficient symptoms in toddlers. High stress impedes medical students’ mental flexibility. I agree that “living in two dimensions,” as she puts it, will affect us.
    As a result of video games and Facebooking, are we acting like babies, living for the moment, developing shorter attention spans? Again, she’s right to worry. Facebook and video games aren’t passive. Yet much of digital life is reactive. We settle for push-button googled answers, immerse ourselves in “do-over” alternate realities, spend our days racing to keep up with Twitter, email and IM. This way of life doesn’t promote vision, planning, long-term strategizing, tenacity – skills sorely needed in this era.
    Yes, humans need to stay tuned to their environment in order to survive. We actually get a little adrenaline jolt from new stimuli. But humans also need to plan for the future, organize, strategize. Recall some of the symptoms of ADHD: impulsivity, pursuit of immediate gratification, and being overly reactive. Today, as we skitter across our days, jumping to respond to every beep and ping and ever-craving the new, are we doing a good job preparing for the future?
    If it weren’t for the Net, I likely wouldn’t have found out about Lady Greenfield’s comments, nor been able to respond to them in this way. Yet going forward, we need to rediscover the value of digital gadgets as tools, rather than elevating them to social and cognitive panacea. Lady Greenfield is right: we need to grow up and take a more mature approach to our tech tools.

  • Comment number 10.

    Re examples of distraction changing the world, a lack of focus certainly changed the world for the growing numbers of people killed by texting, phone-chatting drivers. In the US, crashes of public trains and trolleys due to distraction have drawn headlines. And cell phoning is blamed for a growing proportion of accidents.

    Here are links to stories about two of the worst incidents, but there are many many other examples:



    Of course, it's important that we don't blame technology in full. I see a changed sense of time as one reason why people operate a speeding piece of machinery inattentively. We live in an era of history where we believe we can control outcomes and especially risk. As well, past cues of sun, season, biology hold little sway, hence the 24/7, sleep-deprived rhythms of life. Doing two things "at once" or multitasking seems natural when we truly believe we are bionic. Such changes began long before pdas or mobile phones - inventions such as the electric light and the telegraph ushered us into an age of instantaneity and split-focus.

    Last point about distraction changing the world - sometimes it's for the better. Look at the long history of daydreaming. As Andrea Saveri points out in a recent blog (www.andreasaveri.com), if Einstein wasn't distracted from his work at the patent office, he wouldn't have stumbled upon the theory of relativity. Distraction is a matter of choice, of prioritizing - and sometimes what seems secondary to one person is of top priority to another. The trick is to think carefully about those choices we make. Einstein knew what he was doing, although perhaps his manager didn't agree!

  • Comment number 11.


    Well, let me share my distraction: my father passed away whilst in a coma. This made me re-think what we know about the brain, about technology, about consciousness, about the world and about life itself. Whether I end up with a breakthrough like Einstein or go “quietly insane in silent concentration” remains to be seen, :*).

    Besides which, Einstein had his secret “Distraction Index” which enabled him to focus and it’s documented that his brain composition showed density of synapses which are different from an average person’s, so the boredom of the patent office was a spur rather than the source of his concentration lapse.

    Onto today’s tech………

    Yesterday Twitter was speculatively valued at US$1 billion. The tool, which is being pointed at and attributed to as a tool for distraction, is gaining economic traction.


    No one would question that what Professor Greenfield, others and yourself are trying to do is a noble thing, by asking us to carefully consider the CONSEQUENTIAL IMPLICATIONS and trade-offs as much as the liberations and resources availability afforded to us by the Web. It’s an issue of the approach and methodologies being applied that’s the cause of resistance rather than the character of the Web skeptics or the nobility of their good intent.

    In a sense, the genie of the Web has already flown the bottle. Areas of it are mutating in a viral way that no single person, government, corporate entity, charity or theory (whether economic or socio-psychological) has any control or complete knowledge over.

    Yes, it’s important to start tracking this in a more sensible and systematic way. Still, let’s allow empiricism, diversity, inclusion and observation help guide us rather than any emotive subjectivity or narrow elite.

    Rest assured, there are “fathers of the Web” who are reminding my generation --- I’m over 20 years younger than Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Greenfield and female, by the way --- to be more serious and strategic. Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term “Web 2.0,” recently made a point of arguing:

    “Silicon Valley has strayed from the passion and idealism that fuel innovation to instead follow what he calls the "mad pursuit of the buck with stupider and stupider ideas”.

    Jim Schorr, who lectures on social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, says he can't imagine "a higher calling for the next generation of tech entrepreneurs."

    "The opportunity to focus technology and tech entrepreneurs on the unaddressed, underserved segments of society is enormous," Schorr said. "Developing and extending technologies with limited profit potential, using market-driven approaches, can deliver both social and financial impact and sustainability."

    (Source: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/10/business/fi-oreilly10%29

    Personally, I think O’Reilly and Schorr are making valid and inspirational points. This is why my own models and applications are informed by this rather than by “Cool! I can code this flashy piece of fluff that spins like a kaleidoscope!” My tools and products fit into a wider and deeper consciousness about the socio-economic and technological ecosystems. They did this decades before my father’s situation and they will do long after I am myself a parent; what we design is derived from our own natures and not necessarily by the nurture of the environment, in isolation.

    Wrt your comment: “This way of life doesn’t promote vision, planning, long-term strategizing, tenacity,” I have to respectfully disagree. Leveraging tools like Facebook, Twitter, email and IM can facilitate all of those things. It’s a matter of the HOW, not the what.

    It’s like this: those tools are a fishing rod. If we hook an old boot or a minnow instead of sweet, giant salmon it’s not the fault of the fishing rod. It’s the fisherperson’s lack of knowhow and skill. It’s their inability to read the terrain, factor in weather conditions and position themselves in a spot to concentrate and catch the salmon. It’s also their inability to seek the wisdom of others who may have fished before (and in that spot). The fishing rod can’t read their minds. They control it, not vice versa.

    Now, I’ve worked directly with CEOs on strategies so let me also share this. Some of the CEOs of the 1950s to 1970s generation are technologically illiterate. They can’t (and so don’t) navigate their ways around email systems; they have their 20-something PAs print materials off for them. They delegate the management of their time and their attentions to those PAs. They read reports long-hand rather than as 140 character tweets. They’re also not on their own corporate networks or IM channels. They have few of the so-called “sources of distraction”.

    Yet some of them are incapable of vision, planning, long-term strategizing, tenacity, those sorely needed skills you noted --- as is evident in the global financial crisis or any Chapter 11 bankruptcy and corporate failures. They also suffer from information overload from those stockpiles of longhand printed out reports, books and even short 2-page executive summaries.

    Likewise, the Anthony Edens, Joseph Stalins, Robert Mugabes and (some would say George W. Bushes) did not have the Web or technology to distract them and look what they achieved. Vision? Planning? Long-term strategizing? Inflation in Zimbabwe surged past 230 MILLION PERCENT by October 2008. Eden triggered the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Stalin is said to be responsible for the deaths of upwards of 10 million, predominantly in Ukraine caused by the famine conditions his policies produced. In China, of course, we have Pu Yi the Last Emperor of China who had no technology distractions; however unlike his illustrious predecessors like Liu Bang (who in 206BC created the Han Dynasty, the first one to embrace Confucianism, strategy and educational and technological innovation), Pu Yi had no vision.

    Reaching even further back, Rome and other ancient civilizations fell not because they were distracted by technologies. They fell either because of natural disasters or man-made causes stemming from arrogance, complacency, conceit, narcissism and hubris --- the very same hubris that’s said to have infected the banking sector in recent years.

    What it all boils down to are not the tools, the education or the experience alone, but the JUDGMENT. Judgment derived from rationale, ego and emotion.

    There are technical whizz’s who can have 6 Bloomberg screens flashing constantly at them, a messy desk and they still make a spot-on stock call (every single time). Then there are others who have clean desks, get distracted and lose millions. Meanwhile, there’s another set who can sometimes tune in and out of their attention spans; sometimes tidy up their desks, sometimes call it right, sometimes are grossly wrong.

    In a previous thread, I asked the question of whether it’s possible to isolate the Web and its tools (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as the originating source of distraction or whether the inability to concentrate is also attributable to a priori Web changes in education systems, the proliferation of media (print billboards as much as online spam), the migration to magazines and snappy articles, television and fast-editing and also the advent of mobile technologies. Even the lack of conversation around a family dinner table can affect our abilities to concentrate. Fewer and fewer families sit down for an hour over dinner and simply converse and care.

    How is that affecting our abilities to sit still, contemplate and concentrate?

    Let’s also make this anecdotal observation and ask the scientists to source and analyze the empirical evidence. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Michael Bloomberg, the Google founders are all long-term technically “plugged in” to this “living in two dimensions,” and must get more emails, IMs and so-called “sources of distraction” than most. Yet they managed to remain focused and to increase the value of their companies and the knowledge repositories of their staff.

    In my own case, I don’t treat tech tools as distractions. I take my fishing rod and aim for the sweet, giant Salmon of Wisdom (bradán feasa).


    Hopefully, I’m not going to lose concentration or consciousness any time soon since there’s a lot I’d like to contribute.


    In case anyone’s unfamiliar with the salmon mythology, please refer to ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Finn MacCumhal’:


    Thank goodness for the Web because I certainly didn't learn about Celtic mythology at school and my professional life in the chemical industry, banking and technology would certainly never have exposed me to this type of reading!

  • Comment number 12.

    My photographic contribution about watching tv while surfing the internet...



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