I’ve been thinking about discipline and learning a lot lately. (Feel free to pause and savor the full flavor of “learning” as a gerund.) A recent post from Andrew Sullivan in timesonline, via Nicholas Carr (who inspired Sullivan’s post), prompts me to say a few words about it today. More to come, I’m sure.

Sullivan writes:

In researching a topic [online], or just browsing through the blogosphere, the mind leaps and jumps and vaults from one source to another. The mental multitasking – a factoid here, a YouTube there, a link over there, an e-mail, an instant message, a new PDF – is both mind-boggling when you look at it from a distance and yet perfectly natural when you’re in mid-blog.

First, let’s take a moment (really) to appreciate that this is even possible. That we can access such a wide array of information so rapidly is fundamentally amazing ( a “small miracle,” Sullivan calls it). I think those who have moved beyond simply being frightened or overwhelmed by the social media revolution often become so absorbed with adding to the information flow (or commenting upon additions to the information flow) that we fail to value fully the bounty from which we might benefit.

But that is not Sullivan’s main point—or the reason that someone like Carr would quote him. He is concerned with the dark side. Whether you are a blogger, or just an ordinary surfer, there are shiny lights everywhere out here on the Web. Distractions. Things that may keep us from completing our thoughts, much less analyzing them, synthesizing them, or forming meaningful judgments. It seems logical to suppose that over time this might change how we think, how we learn—perhaps whether we learn.

I confess I am sorely tempted by the dark side on a daily basis. I sense there is value in going where the clicks take us. Explore. Forge connections. Make mistakes. Everyone’s doing it. But surely this can’t be the whole story for anyone who expects not simply to process information but to learn. We must pause, reflect, dig deeper. As Sullivan puts it:

Shallowness, after all, does not necessarily preclude depth. We just have to find a new equilibrium between the two. We need to be both pond-skaters and scuba divers. We need to master the ability to access facts while reserving time and space to do something meaningful with them.

Amen. Of course, to master the ability to do anything requires discipline. As with anything else in life, the only thing that can keep us from too much of a good thing on the Web is ourselves.


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