Posted by: elightkeeper | November 23, 2010

Growing Up Analog, Wired by Distraction

The recent New York Times article “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” has become quite a lightning rod for views on what the digital world might be doing to our youth. I’m not going to critique the article in this blog as many others have already done so. For your reference, I have included links to a few Twittered blogs that present different perspectives. Those can be found at the bottom of this post.

For my part, I will offer you a story, with humble yet irreverent apologies to author Matt Richtel and the New York Times:

VANCOUVER, BC – On an winter eve during a pivotal school year in Cindy’s life, she faces a familiar choice on the family dining room table: a book to finish for English 12, or her brand new cassette tape recorder.

By all rights, Cindy, arguably a bright 17 year old girl who actually likes school, should have already finished reading “Twelve Angry Men”.  But she hasn’t found the men to be all that angry or interesting and consequently has rather mindlessly drifted her way through only half of the pages.

In her cassette tape player is a scratchy recording of Roberta Flack singing, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”.  Earlier, while memorizing a few French verb conjugations and watching Hockey Night in Canada, she monitored CKLG am radio by earphone until they finally played Flack’s latest hit.   She managed to scoop a decent recording of the tune off the airwaves, minus the first five bars it took to run to the kitchen, hit play and get the spools turning. Back at the kitchen table, she has opted to write out the lyrics of this new song and work out the arrangement on her guitar.

“In a song, you can get a whole story in three minutes,” she says. “Reading this play takes a lot longer. I’ll finish it later.”

She is procrastinating, not out of avoidance, but because she is engaged by something else that is more relevant to her at this moment in her life. She won’t finish reading the play in time for class, and will rely on her friend Arlene, fully ensconced in her daily Harlequin Romance reading, to tell her about it as they ride the bus to school in the morning. Procrastination is a bad thing, she will hear repeatedly, usually from adults who grew up in a time where duties and deadlines were valued, and turning to immediate gratification was scorned.

She will not finish “Twelve Angry Men” until many years later when she becomes a student teacher and finds it necessary to teach the play on a practicum to students much like she was.  At 17, she will stay up as late as it takes to learn this one new song. She will spend hours and days practicing it until it sounds just right and she will never buy the sheet music. She is learning about a passion for learning. Her experience is teaching her.

Cindy always gets an A in choir, but the rest of her classes often fall short. Several of Cindy’s teachers wonder why she just won’t push herself to excel in all of her classes. They tell her she is capable. School is important to her. It’s just not THAT important.

VANCOUVER, BC- 2010 – Cindy is catching up on a river of Twitter posts concerning “Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction”. She had been working on another blog post, but set it aside when this topic suddenly grabbed her attention, compelling her to write something to challenge the negative assumptions being made about technology and learning.

Cindy writes this blog post while instant messaging, tracking Twitter, and watching the new hit show Glee.  She rarely finds her attention in one place anymore. She is able to attend to several things at once. In her mind, this ability is not anything like multi-tasking, which implies a shared and diminished focus from attention as a whole. Instead, she regularly engages in a kind of multi-focus that allows the objects of attention to exceed the sum of their parts. In the classic Rubin figure/ground diagram to the left, she sees two faces and a vase all at once. She is not sure how long she has been able to do this, but it is a fascinating skill she acquired somewhere in the past decade.

She grew up analog, became immersed in digital, but irrespective of the technology of the day, has always been wired for distraction. She considers this to be an asset for her as an educational leader in the very disruptive field of online learning.

Carol Burnett is a special guest on tonight’s episode of Glee. Cindy stops writing this blog post and googles Carol Burnett to see if YouTube videos of the old TV footage exist. Not surprisingly, Carol’s famous eighteen minute parody of Gone With The Wind is available online. The internet is a gold mine even if some days it makes her feel like a canary.

Appreciating that not everyone may have been alive when the original Burnett sketch was done, and that few readers will have eighteen minutes to devote to viewing this, Cindy opts to provide a short clip from one of the funniest comedy pieces ever done on live television. It’s a clip that has nothing at all to do with this blog post. And yet in a vase/face kind of way, it has everything to do with the point she is hoping to make.

For further reading on the digital debate, here are a few excellent blog posts in response to the NYT article:

NYT Cover Story on ‘Growing up Digital” misses the mark by Don Tapscott

Why Doesn’t Anyone Pay Attention Any More? by Cathy Davidson

Driven or Distracted? by Steven Johnson

Attention vs Distraction by Megan Garber

Footnote:  Before her hit records, Roberta Flack was a high school music teacher in Washington, DC.



  1. Okay! Loved this. My husband and I were laughing aloud as I read it aloud with our children looking at us strangely!

    I used the “Growing Up Digital…” article in my classroom this week for the purpose of showing how to extract points of information correctly when completing research. The students found the article quite interesting; however, I teased them for their reaction to the six page length of the article…because they said they couldn’t possibly ‘focus’ on an article that long!

    I am going to read them yours tomorrow and have them identify the purpose of your writing piece.



    • Hi Kim, On the topic of article lengths, how remarkable that you read my entire response! 🙂 My writer’s goal (a separate purpose from the content goal) is to engage readers so they will stick around and enjoy the journey down a lengthy page. In my experience, it is not uncommon for readers to sample digital content on blogs. Some will read and explore an entire piece; many will sample bits of content and move on. What students may not yet know is certain risks and benefits accompany content sampling. By commenting here, you have added the dimension of dialogue and that enriches what I’ve written. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. Cindy PS I’m really happy to hear I made you and your husband laugh!

  2. […] Growing Up Analog, Wired by Distraction from e-lighthouse […]

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