Focus vs. Awareness: Seeing the Upside in Generation Graze

Professor Hazen came into the class and drew three lines on the chalk board (remember those?) — each at 45 degree angles to each other but not quite touching.

“What is it?” were his first words in the Psychology of Perception course I took my junior year at UGA.

“A triangle” the five students who weren’t afraid to talk on the first day of class said in unison.

“Nope.  I drew lines.  You drew the triangle.”  He was right.  They were just three disconnected lines.  We organized the random visual data into something we could make sense of.  A shape.  A triangle. His point was that we humans are organizing machines constantly piecing together our reality from scraps of stimuli.  He had a word for it.  Gestalt — pronounced “geshtalt” because nothing makes you sound more intelligent than an authentic Teutonic enunciation.  Bottom line, the whole is always more than just the sum of the parts. Reality is never additive.

My social media immersion has me thinking about gestalt.  A couple of months ago, I plunged head first into Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, whatever.  I’ve known the social media “facts.”  Now I am trying to understand it — think of it as an unorthodox participant observation study in 140 characters of less.  I’ve learned a lot.  With Tweetdeck running in the background and the alien-esque update alert creating an eerie soundtrack, I am working differently.  My attention wanders.  My contemplation is more meandering and less directed. Links to academic articles, updates from my students, news stories, pictures from friends all wash over me.  It’s tempting to say I am distracted — that assessment is too simple and burdened with negative connotations.  My thoughts and even ideas seem less solitary — more connected.  And not just to other ideas, but connected to people — some I know intimately and others are little more than amorphous concept clouds sharing resources and perspective.  The diversion isn’t disruption. My computer work now has a network of collaborators — some of whom I know of and others I just imagine are working along with me.  My work is and feels more, well, social.

Many are lamenting the death of “deep reading.”  We seem to be losing the ability to hone in on a singular idea to the exclusion of everything else.  Those of us raised to believe that a nose in a book was the ideal of productive concentration are all too quick to judge the new ways that young people accommodate information.  Generation graze — the ones who read in blips, blurbs, blogs, posts, and tweets — seem like the end of literacy and the annihilation of learned culture. And new media is blamed for the attention deficient pandemic.

But does focus come at the expense of awareness?  Does single-mindedness strip down our experience?  I worry about the artificiality of the tunnel vision that accompanies our academic absorption.  I don’t concentrate on a sunset at the beach but it changes me.  Focus isn’t a part of my morning dog walks but they refresh me.

Maybe the generation graze has mastered gestalt.  Rather than assembling parts in lockstep, they could be tying together threads from all over the place to make new types of message tapestries.  Maybe the new ways of thinking that emerge from their information styles will be more like weaving than building. I think I like the colors more anyway.

Scott Shamp is the Director of the New Media Institute in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The New Media Institute is an interdisciplinary unit created to explore the creative, critical, and commercial implications of new digital communication technology. Shamp currently serves on the Board of the International Digital Media and Arts Association. He has been a member of iDMAa since its founding in 2003.
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