Monday, August 3, 2015

Techcognition in an Attention Economy

Sunset on Sawbill Lake in northern Minnesota, 
With three colleagues in Chicago for the
Schoology NEXT Conference.

Last week in less than a 24 hour period, I left the Schoology NEXT conference in downtown Chicago, flew home to Minneapolis, picked up my four kids and camping gear, and spent the next four days on Sawbill Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). It was quite a transition from a tech conference in the city filled with skyscrapers and millions of people to the remote wilderness completely off the grid!

The BWCA is a national forest campground with over a million acres of lakes and forests in northern Minnesota on the Canadian border. There is no electricity, no running water, no motorized vehicles, and no roads. You travel by canoe and portage (carry) your gear over the land between them, which can be a short path or very, very long hike.

I believe this was my 17th year camping in the BWCA: my dad first took me in high school and then nine years ago we started bringing my own kids. Dad "retired" from these trips about four years ago and my college roommate joined me, helping with all the gear, cooking, and work. (My wife stays home and enjoys her time alone for a few days.) My kids started going when they were between the ages of three and five, and starting last year all four were old enough to join in the fun. The BWCA is a great place to spend time together, relax, swim, explore, observe nature, fish, play cards, read books, and disconnect.  I only used my phone as a camera.

I spent a lot of time thinking about being off the grid and aware that I was not connected or on a screen over those four days in the BWCA. You can really notice how much time you spend on a screen when it suddenly is not available. There wasn't any technology prompting me for my attention. There was no way to check in and see if I'd missed anything, either. 

The day after I returned home, I heard yet another fascinating (and timely) WNYC's Note to Self podcast episode entitled, The Attention Economy: What is Our Attention Actually Worth? In the episode, Manoush Zomorodi interviews Tristan Harris, a tech entrepreneur and design ethicist, who explains that some tech companies design for and get paid by the amount of time they can hold our attention in an app/program/device. Tristan wants to change this, and I hope he (we) can. He tells an interesting background story about the original designers of AirBnB, who originally measured the success of their service based on the positive time/value add that hosts and guests collectively reported about their stays and time together. Imagine focusing on a positive metric like that... versus bottom line profits based on how much time you can just grab someone's attention, taking them away from those around them, their thoughts, or just some down time! It's encouraging to hear that someone in Silicon Valley is thinking about designing technology to not demand more of our attention, and I hope other developers will adopt this way of thinking.

I believe that one of the essential skills we can teach our children as parents and educators is an awareness of how they spend their time with technology, how frequently, and the value of their interaction with it. As we see both them and ourselves being engaged and more dependent on screens and technology, it seems that it will be even more difficult in the future to recall life before this constant connection and screen presence. I wonder if future generations will even have times where they are just lost in their own thoughts in silence, or be with one another without technology present? I believe it is important to provide kids with experiences off the grid and/or away from technology so they know what it is like, as well as to frequently discuss an awareness of their use of and reliance on technology. 

Techcognition- an awareness and understanding
of one's own use of technology

Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes. Perhaps now we need a term for the awareness and understanding of one's own use of technology. How about techcognition (or technognition)? I hope to help my own children and today's students with their techcognition skills. I want to help them learn balanced vs. addicted or distracted use. Technology is certainly here to stay. It is essential and beneficial in numerous ways. Helping today's kids learn to be cognizant of their interactions with it can only help prepare them for a future that will be even more connected than things are today.  

If you have never been to the BWCA, I highly recommend it. If you're fearful of what to pack or how to do it, there are plenty of outfitters and even guide services. I'd be happy to recommend something, just let me know. (Chicago is a great place to visit, too, but for different reasons.)

Related posts: 

No comments:

Post a Comment