April 19, 2018

In the Moment | Office Hours

Michael StephensLibrarians, are you present in your work? Are you listening when someone asks a question at the desk? LIS students, are you there in the classroom or online with an open mind and a thirst for learning? Are you in the moment?

My thoughts turn to mindfulness as I find many distractions pulling me away from grading, working on research, or reading student work. I want to be in the moment for all of these things. You’ve heard the advice: turn everything off to concentrate and get things done. But when so much of our personal and professional lives carries an online component, that can be hard to do. When writing this column, I usually shut down email, IM, and my browser, but then I hear the distant ding of the iPad in the other room. Some folks advocate for having a technology-free zone in a certain room at home, but that’s also a tough call when Wi-Fi pervades and devices move with us.

Is unplugging necessary?

The popularity of “unplugging” continues to rise, but I was more interested in Casey Cep’s March 19, 2014, New Yorker article, “The Pointlessness of Unplugging.” Cep explores the move to unplug as a means to reconnect with the “real” world, the authentic world. Cep argues that unplugging “suggests that the selves we are online aren’t authentic, and that the relationships that we forge in digital spaces aren’t meaningful. This is odd, because some of our closest friends and most significant professional connections are people we’ve only ever met on the Internet.” Imagine disconnecting from your personal learning networks or community of practice for longer than a weekend away or vacation time. You’d miss those colleagues, those friends. I know I would.

While adults struggle with unplugging and balance, more attention falls on young people. In my talks about “Learning Everywhere,” I tell the story of young Ian, a neighbor who sometimes attaches to our Wi-Fi with his family’s iPod Touch. “What are you doing, Ian?” I called out the window one day last summer. He held his device aloft and happily shouted, “I’m downloading apps.” The world in which Ian will grow up will be a very different place.

More than once, someone in the audience has expressed concern that children and young people are always looking at their mobile device, texting, gaming, or whatever. Recently the comment was this: “I want to take away the iPad and send them outside. They are not in the moment.” My reply was a reminiscence of my mother taking away my Hardy Boys books and sending me out to play one summer day. I was furious! The seminar room vibrated with comments: “It’s the same thing.” “It’s not the same thing!”

Why social matters

I’d argue that it is the same thing, with a slight caveat. In her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, explores how young people use technology, pulling in findings from ten years of research. I would suggest it should be required reading not only for parents and educators but for librarians of all stripes. boyd notes that “most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such—they are compelled by friendship. The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end.”

Hangouts are now online as well as in real space. “What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s,” boyd writes, “Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now.” The caveat, then, is this: when taking away my books, the Hardy Boys would wait patiently for me, while unplugging a young person’s potentially primary means of social interactivity could prove detrimental to their connections and friendships. boyd shares the example of Heather, a teen who uses Facebook as “a social lifeline that enables her to stay connected to people she cares about but cannot otherwise interact with in person.” These young people are not sharing the same spaces, but they are sharing a moment.

Young people are doing what young people have always done. The tools are just a bit different. This is not an out, though, for a lack of conscientious parenting. Parents need to be involved as always. For educators and librarians, I’d argue that starting early with digital citizenship courses would serve young people well. I believe boyd’s work along with others such as Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, edited by Mimi Ito, would support these initiatives. In fact, isn’t the popular ­YouMedia space at the Chicago Public Library an extension of this: getting young people together to be social and learn with and around technology?

So take a breath. We’re okay. Our young people are okay. Technology is part of our lives. Unplugging is good, as is a balanced approach and an understanding of just how useful these devices and networks can be. Above all, no matter what the circumstance, be in the ­moment.

This article was published in Library Journal's June 15, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA