From connection to contemplation…


Deep thought needs a champion!  In the digital age, efforts to promote thinking are critical and deserve high priority.  How do we balance information gathering pursuits— web surfing, social media, email, text messages—with more contemplative information processing and synthesis?


While it is true that modern technologies enable all manner of worthwhile connections, it is also true that developing a truly efficient system to make use of the perpetual influx of information entails a steeper learning curve than most appreciate. …


To discuss the downside of hyperconnection is not to call for Luddite rebellion and the destruction of technology. … The issue is one of balance between connectivity and contemplation.


These conclusions are reflected in an insightful report from The American Library Association.  More specifically, they come from two of the people involved with their Office for Information Technology Policy, Director Alan Inouye and Research Associate and Google Policy Fellow Jessie L. Mannisto.


In “Restoring Contemplation: How Disconnecting Bolsters the Knowledge Economy,” Mannisto argues that our “information diet is as important to our well-being as the food we eat.”  She begins the report with a brief overview of the impact of information technology on various segments of society—the military, teenagers, education, the family, and the workplace.


Next, she examines some of the recent research on how heavy use of the Internet affects the brain.


·         Neuroscientific research has demonstrated that the human brain has limits on its capacity for information processing and attention that severely constrain the ability to multitask.


·         This finding suggests that people perform cognitively demanding tasks effectively only when they devote their full, sustained attention. As they train themselves to respond to every incoming signal, chronic multitaskers also diminish their ability to filter out irrelevant information, sacrificing performance on their primary tasks.


Mannisto concludes the report by offering several suggestions for developing a healthier information diet in libraries, schools, the home, and the workplace.  Here are only a few of her suggestions.


·         The first and most basic contemplative resource is disconnected space. While free Wi-Fi attracts one cohort, another would like somewhere Wi-Fi-free. Just as sleep experts say that eliminating television from the bedroom and training the brain that it is a place for sleep can help insomniacs, perhaps our brains  could be trained to focus if we went to a physical space that prevented us from following every tangential thought that crosses our minds. …

·         Libraries also could create contemplative resource centers. … The contemplative resource center could showcase technological tools that help encourage focus and strengthen users’ information processing capabilities. …

·         The center would also offer education on contemplation. …

·         The library could host discussions of books such as Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together or William Powers’ Hamlet’s BlackBerry

·         The capacity for analytical thought is fundamental to our concept of an educated person. … Even in the digital age, there is an important place in the school day for contemplative activities such as silent reading. …

·         High school librarians, perhaps working with English or computer skills teachers, might discuss gathering and processing in greater depth in a seminar on optimizing cognitive resources. Like the library’s contemplation resource center, this seminar would offer students guidance and provide a venue for them to discuss—and therefore more constructively and actively shape—their technological and cognitive habits.


Mannisto concludes by emphasizing the social dimensions of the digital revolution.


Hyperconnectivity is an inherently social and institutional problem, so its solution must also be social and institutional. If we simply accept without question that our future is one in which only a few stubborn individuals will struggle against the tide of interruptions, digital tethers, and shallow information skimming, we will succumb to a terrible sort of technological determinism. In a hyperconnected world, it is empowering to remember that ultimately, new knowledge is not plucked from the flow of information, but first gestates inside human minds.



Jessie L. Mannisto’s report, “Restoring Contemplation: How Disconnecting Bolsters the Knowledge Economy,” is available here.

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