Clay Shirky, devices and the brain’s weathering

Why the Internet guru Clay Shirky eventually banned the Internet in class. (A distorted precis, comments, and notes on the margins of Shirky’s reflection.)

New media evangelist Clay Shirky has recently prohibited students’ use of digital devices in his class. He had been moving toward this decision for a long 16 years. Professor Shirky has explained his ban in the extremely interesting article that was published on The Washington Post‘s blog[i].

Clay Shirky has been teaching Internet classes since 1998. He had been allowing students to use devices until this September. Firstly, it’s a little bit awkward to taboo what you are teaching. Secondly, it looks like he would have felt a little bit ashamed if he had succeeded in the competition for students’ attention using administrative restriction. “It’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating,” writes Shirky. Besides, Prof. Shirky believed in the laissez-faire approach supposing that the ‘invisible hand’ of rational decision-making will establish the right balance of attention in the audience. But, at the end of the day, after long years of struggle, he made his resolute decision and instituted the ‘government regulation’ over this ‘free market’ of students’ attention.

The problem is that the atmosphere in the class had been getting worse year by year. Students were becoming distracted more and more. Clay Shirky tried to analyze what had been the reason. The professor seemed to be the same, as well as the content (I would add that the content was becoming even better as Clay Shirky had published two books within these years that turned out to be pivotal for the industry; and he himself became a world-recognized star of digital studies.) Did the students change? Prof. Shirky came to the conclusion that the problem he faced was caused by the improvement of devices and digital ecosystems. Devices became extremely handy and ubiquitous. Shirky realized that this contest is a one-sided game. He fought the whole horde of designers and engineers who have been doing their best to improve the attractive (and distractive) features of Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, Mac, iOS, Windows, Android… “In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army (including, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, many of my former students),” Shirky concludes. He confessed to himself that the ‘invisible hand’ of rational choice couldn’t stand against this armada unless he banned the use of devices.

How is it possible to compete if the topic suggested by the professor is “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by the use of the telegraph” while Facebook offers something like “Your former lover tagged a photo you are in”? “Spot the difference?” asked Shirky.

Not only is that content attractive (and distractive) by itself, it is also flickering, vibrating, and jingling. It is simply physiologically impossible not to react and not to take a look at what it calls for. That’s it, students are lost for teaching.

Earlier, Shirky would sometimes restrict the use of the gadgets in the class and would notice that it was as if fresh air had been let into the room. The discussion would sharpen and, what is interesting, many students themselves seemed to experience a sense of relief. I think many of us are familiar with this sense; when we are suddenly deprived of Internet access we experience this moment as something special, most often in a positive light. People are glad to be disconnected; only for a while, of course. And then, they rush back to the prison of everything interesting.

Clay Shirky recalls Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of an elephant (symbolizing the emotions) and a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider knows the aim and can lead toward it, but the elephant is more powerful. They collaborate as long as the rider succeeds in moderating the elephant. But in conflict, the elephant more often wins. The younger an individual, the stronger the elephant; the rider is just a novice. And vice versa, the more experienced the rider (reason), the more obedient the elephant (emotions). This metaphor makes the professor stop thinking about the students as people who make a rational choice between the temptation of emotional distraction and the effort of intellectual concentration.

All those designers and engineers are aimed at distracting our inner elephant so that it breaks loose and overthrows the rider. And they require nothing in exchange (as the professor does), they just take what they can withdraw, namely time.

Furthermore, as Prof. Shirky noticed, devices, while being turned on, cause a “second-hand smoke” effect. The others in the room react to someone’s twinkling screen and also get distracted. Students get the impression that it is possible to be in the classroom and to be out of the lecture at the same time. I bet this is familiar to many of us; when someone in an auditorium or group jumps out to the Web, we physically experience something like the break of a circuit. There is a breach which decompresses meaning. This breach does not allow us to accumulate meanings – neither in the head nor in the group.

Rajahs of the digital world will seduce and fatten our elephants further. However, Prof. Shirky sees also that the opposite trend is maturing. Apps are arriving that aim to serve the movement of resistance; they restrict alerts, block notifications, etc. I would add that Prof. Shirky himself demonstrates a good example of such resistance. Following Steve Jobs who restrained his children from using an iPad[ii]. Following Madonna who restrained her children from watching TV[iii]. They surely knew what they dealt with.

Here are some more notes on the margins of Shirky’s article.

1) Media literacy is time management. In an environment where the time of life is our main value, media literacy will become the primary physiological skill.

2) Conveniences enslave. Well-designed convenience tends to occupy all time that a human may physically spend on this convenience. Convenience is the best trap for the time that gets loose from real life.

3) There will not be an appreciable result; but resist! The future is inevitable, the present is doomed, but even hopeless resistance adds a little bit of dignity into the bustle of temporal acceleration.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon


[i] Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class. The Washington Post, blogs, September 25.

[ii] Nick Biltonsept. Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent. The New York Times, September, 10, 2014.

[iii] Madonna, Interview, Ladies Home Journal, July 2005.

Categories: Future of journalism, Immersive experience, Media ecology

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