The merits of unplugging

July 3, 2010 — 1 Comment

Posting has been light lately.  That often happens when I’m juggling more projects than I can manage, which is the case right now.  But lately there’s been another reason I’ve spent less time around the blogosphere.

Over the past two years I have spent less and less time reading books and journals, and more and more reading online.  Throughout my day I drink from a firehose of news sites, blogs, e-mails, and other sources.  This connectivity has brought many benefits, but I’ve gradually come to realize an alarming fact: although my information intake has multiplied, I’m learning less and less.

I have tried to understand why.  This article from Wired magazine shed a lot of light on the subject.  It discusses how spending time online physically rewires our brains.  I was particularly interested in studies that show how much nonlinear reading impairs our ability to learn and retain information.  The bottom line is that we learn at a much deeper level when we read in a concentrated, linear fashion.  Frequent distractions hinder our ability to transfer information from short-term into long-term memory.  The mere presence of hyperlinks can be enough to break concentration and hinder retention.

Another reason I’m learning less is information overload.  When I try to consume too many articles in a given day, I don’t really read any of them.  I scan, I look for highlights, I try to dig out the gold.  But the amount of real learning is minimal.  This last week I probably skimmed 200 e-mails and 50 articles about General McChrystal’s media blunder and General Petraeus’ assumption of command.  I learned a good deal, but I would have learned more if I’d read 5 articles about McChrystal and Petraeus and one good book about civil-military relations.

A third reason I’m learning less is that online communities are self-selecting and tend to focus on the same sets of issues.  In the national security community that usually means current political, economic, and military events.  The world is much broader than that, and there is so much to learn, but deep immersion in the blogosphere can leave little time for other areas of study.  This myopia isn’t inevitable, but I think it is common.

I’m not turning my back on the blogosphere.  I like being connected to the world, and I remain a believer in the power of new media to accelerate the flow of information and ideas.  Vibrant online dialogue can make us smarter and more adaptable–but it has insidious dangers.  Despite our best efforts to be broad thinkers, we in the military and broader national security are addicted to current events, often at the expense of deeper learning.  We can be too reactive, too obsessed with the hot issue of the day, too reliant on op eds and endless discussion.  I’ve noticed those trends in myself over the past two years.

That’s why I’m making some mid-course corrections.  I’m spending less time online and trying to spend more time in books.  I’ve cut down on the number of blogs I follow.  I’m spending less time on my own blog.  I’m not totally unplugging, but I hope I can strike a better balance in how I spend my time.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

One response to The merits of unplugging

  1. Along the same lines,

    It presents 172 essays from a variety of viewpoints on the question; “How is the internet changing the way you think?”

    I haven’t read them all, but the ones I did read convinced me that a change in habits is in order.

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