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Like it or not, knowing how to make use of online tools without being overloaded with too much information is an essential ingredient to personal success in the twenty-first century. But how can we use digital media so that they make us empowered participants rather than passive receivers, grounded, well-rounded people rather than multitasking basket cases? In NetSmart, cyberculture expert Howard Rheingold shows us how to use social media intelligently, humanely, and, above all, mindfully.
Mindful use of digital media means thinking about what we are doing, cultivating an ongoing inner inquiry into how we want to spend our time. Rheingold outlines five fundamental digital literacies, online skills that will help us do this: attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption of information (or "crap detection"), and network smarts. He explains how attention works, and how we can use our attention to focus on the tiny relevant portion of the incoming tsunami of information. He describes the quality of participation that empowers the best of the bloggers, netizens, tweeters, and other online community participants; he examines how successful online collaborative enterprises contribute new knowledge to the world in new ways; and he teaches us a lesson on networks and network building.
Rheingold points out that there is a bigger social issue at work in digital literacy, one that goes beyond personal empowerment. If we combine our individual efforts wisely, it could produce a more thoughtful society: countless small acts like publishing aWeb page or sharing a link could add up to a public good that enriches everybody.
"That Rheingold has written a smart and enjoyable guide is unsurprising....Rheingold does us an important service by offering a number of insights into, and strategies for, the 'net smarts' we need to function more efficiently in our increasingly online world."--James
The MIT Press
"Here, I'd point to the work of my friend Howard Rheingold and his new book Net
Smart, which is an excellent guide for how to be a digitally fluent user of all the technologies we have available to us now. It's an excellent book and I think the FCC should include it in their plan for training the digital educators going into schools!"--Christopher Mims,
The MIT Press
"If you are going to purchase one book about using social media, this is the one to read. It's for people who want to go deeper and get practical know how, improved productivity, and integrate physical and virtual lives."--Beth Kantor
The MIT Press
The future of digital culture—yours, mine, and ours—depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives. How you employ a search engine, stream video from your phonecam, or update your Facebook status matters to you and everyone, because the ways people use new media in the first years of an emerging communication regime can influence the way those media end up being used and misused for decades to come. Instead of confining my exploration to whether or not Google is making us stupid, Facebook is commoditizing our privacy, or Twitter is chopping our attention into microslices (all good questions), I've been asking myself and others how to use social media intelligently, humanely, and above all mindfully. This book is about what I've learned.
I believe that learning to live mindfully in cyberculture is as important to us as a civilization as it is vital to you and me as individuals. The multifold extension of human minds by chips and nets in the first decade of the twenty-first century has granted power to billions, but in these still-early years of multimedia production studios in your pocket and global information networks in the air, it is clear to even technology enthusiasts like me that our enhanced abilities to create and consume digital media will certainly mislead those who haven't learned how to exert mental control over our use of always-on communication channels.
The mindful use of digital media doesn't happen automatically. Thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it instead of going through the motions is fundamental to the definition of mindful, whether you are deciding to follow someone on Twitter, shutting the lid of your laptop in class, looking up from your BlackBerry in a meeting, or consciously deciding which links not to click. Although educational institutions have been slow to incorporate digital literacies, practical know-how is available to those who figure out how to find it. This know-how, from the art of growing social capital in virtual communities to the craft of cultivating wiki collaboration, might determine whether life online will drive us to distraction, or augment and broaden our minds.
For individuals, the issue of where digital culture may be heading is personal as well as philosophical: knowing how to make use of online tools without being overloaded with too much information is, like it or not, an essential ingredient to personal success in the twenty-first century. Just as learning to drive an automobile (or at least learning how to survive as a pedestrian) was crucial for citizens of the early twentieth century, learning how to deploy attention in relation to available media is key today for success in education, business, and social life. Similarly, those who understand the fundamentals of digital participation, online collaboration, informational credibility testing, and network awareness will be able to exert more control over their own fates than those who lack this lore.
I see a bigger social issue at work with digital literacy, in addition to personal empowerment: if we combine our individual efforts wisely, enough of the right know-how could add up to a more thoughtful society as well as enhance those individuals who master digital network skills. Web 2.0 impresario Tim O'Reilly claims that the secret sauce behind Google, Wikipedia, and the Web itself is the "architecture of participation," enabling countless small acts of self-interest like publishing a Web page or sharing a link to add up to a public good that enriches everybody. Examples of the social-media-enabled public goods that grow out of self-interested actions include the Web and free online search engines.
I don't believe that technology itself, a fixed human nature, or the powers that be wholly determine who ends up in control and who ends up being controlled by others when a communication medium is adopted. But I do recognize that powers eventually emerge that try to close gates, meter resources, and lock down liberties. I'm enough of an optimist to persist in believing that this hasn't happened quite yet, despite real advances in the direction of control by governments and corporations around the world. Right now (and for a limited time), we who use the Web have an opportunity to wield the architecture of participation to defend our freedom to create and consume digital media according to our own agendas. Or by not acting in our own interests, we can let others shape our future.
If I am correct that informed actions might still influence the outcome, declaring that technology alone will solve social problems caused by the use of technology is dangerously naive; at the same time, it is dangerously nihilistic to dismiss all the mental and social tools that microchips make possible as irredeemably destructive. People's actions influenced the ways print media shaped the cultural evolution of the past five hundred years. The early users of the telephone insisted on using it to socialize, not as the broadcast medium envisioned by the first telephone companies. Just as people in previous eras appropriated printing presses and telephones in ways that the inventors and vendors of the enabling technologies never imagined, the shape of the social, economic, political, and mental infosphere now emerging from the combination of inexpensive though powerful computers, mobile communication devices, and global digital networks is not yet fully hardened, and thus can still be influenced by the actions of literate populations. We're in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology.
Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg presses did not immediately enable people to overthrow monarchies, drive the Protestant Reformation, and invent science as a collective enterprise. The interval between the technological advance of print and the social revolutions it triggered was required for literacy to spread. Print, a technology that leverages the power of the human mind by making possible mass distribution of written documents, required decades for the intellectual skill of decoding those printed pages to spread through populations. The sheer scarcity of painstakingly crafted manuscripts (the word manuscript literally means "written by hand") had constrained literacy for thousands of years. Thirty thousand pen-and-ink books existed in all of Europe in Johannes Gutenberg's lifetime, but more than ten million printed books became available within fifty years of his invention. The sudden abundance of printed material meant that the mental know-how that had been reserved for elites for millennia abruptly became available to anybody who was able to put in the effort to learn to read. For decades and centuries after Gutenberg, newly literate populations began to learn what to do with the new media of their time, and then they started to foment the Reformation, institute political self-governance, and systematize the discovery of knowledge.
Digital literacies can leverage the Web's architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today's digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. Most important, as people who are trying to get along day to day in a hyperscale, warp-speed civilization that seems so often to be beyond anyone's control, digital literacy is something powerful we can learn as well as exercise for ourselves and each other.
Who Needs to Read This Book, and Why?
I know from my own thirty years online and quest to learn from people who are highly skilled in the new media that practical know-how does exist and can be useful (maybe even essential) to:
Adults who are adept at using online tools and networks, but face challenges of time and attention management, and seek a balance between their physical and virtual environments
Intelligent but perhaps less knowledgeable and fearful parents of young people who are going online for the first time, or spending more and more time online
Young people who are immersed in the digital "hanging out, messing around, and geeking out" online that is such an important part of youth culture today, but are ready to learn deeper, broader ways of using social media productively and collaboratively
People who are old enough to remember the world before it was webbed, and are simultaneously puzzled, attracted, and fearful about new media
Businesspeople who want their employees to be net smart with each other inside their enterprise as well as social media literate when dealing with customers—net smarts within enterprises are different from social marketing competencies
Educators who want to help students connect old and new literacies, and think critically about their own media use
While we're waiting for research to provide more definitive evidence about what our media practices are really doing to our minds and social relationships, I think we can all benefit from adopting some of the rules of thumb discovered by mindful digital media users. Literacy as I am using the term is definitely a skill. But solitary skills are not enough today. Literacy now means skill plus social competency in using that skill collaboratively. Learning how to ride a bike is a skill you have to learn alone, and even if you're the only person in the world who can ride a bicycle, you could get from place to place faster because of your operational knowledge, along with a working bicycle. If you are the only person in the world who knows how to read, write, or hyperlink, however, your skill is far less useful than it could be. What matters the most with present-day new literacies are not just the encoding and decoding skills an individual needs to know to join the community of literates but also the ability to use those skills socially, in concert with others, in an effective way.
I want to introduce you to new know-how (and how to know in new ways) by sharing what I've learned about five literacies that are in the process of changing our world: attention, participation, collaboration, the critical consumption of information (aka "crap detection"), and network smarts. When enough people become proficient at these skills, then healthy new economies, politics, societies, and cultures can emerge. If these literacies do not spread through the population, we could end up drowning ourselves in torrents of misinformation, disinformation, advertising, spam, porn, noise, and trivia. Information overload only begins to describe the problem facing everyone with an email account. The free flows of information that digital technologies have made possible are enriching if used properly, but unhealthy for us as individuals, unproductive for businesses, and toxic for our societies if we don't know how to take them in (or selectively shut them out), evaluate and assimilate them, and contribute our own participation or collaboration—and perhaps most important, when and why to turn off the device, or tear ourselves away from it.
We need to handle the new flows of knowledge, media, and attention in a healthy, flexible, grounded manner, whether we are older and trying to cope with a world that has changed on us, or just starting out in an era in which the rules are still being written. The well-being of sixteen year olds, sixty year olds, start-up companies, and global corporations increasingly depends on the same know-how and how to know.
How Our Learning Journey Will Proceed
In the chapters that follow, I share specific advice about benefiting from and protecting yourself from today's always-and-everywhere media. I direct this advice to worried parents, anxious and enthused students, concerned teachers, curious managers, ambitious employees, thoughtful entrepreneurs, reflective online enthusiasts, puzzled policymakers, and technoskeptics who are just trying to cope. If you need to know what to tell your children about life online, need help surviving and thriving in your own online life, or are grappling with the changes that always-on media are bringing to your organization, I offer the following stories, advice, arguments, evidence, tools, and exercises for your use. I offer this book to people of any age who are willing to think for themselves about their part in digital culture.
I can't give you what you need, however, without some work on your part, precisely because you know better than I do about who you are and where you stand. I can only point out what I've learned and what others have discovered, and leave it to you to make decisions according to your own values. Here, I strive for a balanced approach that is neither a techno-utopian sales pitch nor a neo-Luddite moral panic; it is instead a pragmatic stance that takes into account the reality that the preferences and circumstances of each reader will differ.
As one of the earliest adopters of what I called "mind amplifiers" (in 1985) and the person who gave a name to "virtual communities" (in 1987), I have learned that the media I've been using with gusto for three decades also have their downsides. Although I've traveled across countries and disciplines to consult with a wide variety of media experts, much of what I convey here in terms of practical advice comes from my own experience. I've learned to be wary of trying to sell to others the generalizations about life online that I've found to be true through my own exploration—because one of the things I've learned about social media is that the same activity can be a lifeline for one person and a distracting compulsion to others. There is no single recipe for a mindful life in the digital mediasphere; reflection is required.
One tool that I do feel comfortable generalizing about is the importance of questioning my own communication practices—recognizing which media and mediated social activities I tend to avoid, which ones attract or distract me, and which lead and mislead me, and reflecting on why I react in these ways. I have found through years of trial and much error that the most enriching, least harmful way for me to live in my own computer-mediated world is to cultivate an occasional but ongoing inner inquiry into whether my own activity of the moment is really as significant as what is happening in the rest of my life at each moment. You can't make micro-decisions about how to deploy your attention in the moment unless you have made macrodecisions about how you want to spend your time. And while I'm asking questions, where is my body while my mind scurries through cyberspaces? It's easy to ask oneself, What do I think I should be doing right now? Answering it usually takes work. The process of trying to address the question in your own context is the work of learning digital mindfulness.
Each of the five literacies I discuss is connected to and in many cases undergirds each other. It's impossible to separate signal from noise without exercising attention, so mindfulness is a prerequisite to effective crap detection. Similarly, it's difficult to instigate mass collaboration without network awareness, nor is it easy to participate online without also collaborating. Twitter is a recent example of a social medium that can be a waste of time or multiplier of effort for the person who uses it, depending on how knowledgeable the person is in the three related literacies of attentional discipline, collaborative know-how, and net savvy. You need to know who to pay attention to when you "follow" other Twitter users, how to participate in the networks of trust and norms of reciprocity among Twitter users that make for social capital, and how to craft messages that others will propagate to their own networks. Attention is a literacy that can thread all the other literacies together and hence is fundamental to the others in several ways, so I'll start there.
In the first chapter, I connect my own experience, the exercises recommended by others, and what I've learned about the underlying neuroscience of attention to the practical literacy of controlling attention. The learning journey here begins with an updated understanding of how attention works, why distraction and multitasking might or might not be the vehicle through which modern media are making us stupid as individuals and shallow as a culture, and then gets right into what to do about the dangers of distraction through examining mindfulness, ancient and modern. I'll lay the foundations for discussions later in the book about the possibilities of the extended mind—the use of technology to go beyond remedies for attentional deficits to methods of enhancing intellectual performance. Most crucial for you and your power to wield the literacies introduced later, the first chapter will demonstrate how to begin to take control of your most important technological affordance—your attention.
Excerpted from Net Smart by Howard Rheingold Copyright © 2012 by Howard Rheingold. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 29, 2012
You need a driver's manual for a car, and you need this book to navigate the Internet! Make the most of the digital world by following Howard's expertise as he shares what he has learned from years of experience on the Web. When he isn't busy creating the curve, he's ahead of it. Do yourself a favor and check this out.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.