Oh, and also, I stopped bringing my laptop to class.

September 26, 2010

So you know already that I bought (gasp) paper textbooks like some sort of cave person.1 In addition, I have also stopped bringing my computer to class.

The main reason for this was because my computer is little bit heavy and more of a high-theft item than textbooks and printouts, so I don’t like carrying it around. But now that I have purchased the paper texts (which are also heavy) in order to avoid the Distraction Machine while I’m studying, there’s no reason to carry the heavy machine as well as the heavy paper, right?

Granted, some people just like having the computer in class. In Game Theory, I sit toward the back because I have to make a break for it after class in order to make it to my next class. This makes it easy for me to see most of the other students’ screens. Some are looking up things that are relevant to the class or following the class PowerPoint slides on their own computer, taking notes while doing so, but the majority of people are on Gmail, Facebook, IM, or a blog.

I am not saying this to scold my fellow students. If you don’t want to pay attention in class, don’t. I certainly have had days when I was so worried about getting everything else done that I worked on assignments for one class while sitting in another. Personally, I feel rude if I’m on Facebook chat in class, but that’s between you and your conscience.

But I realized that I just learn so much more when I don’t use my computer in class.

No, really. Game Theory is supposed to be this really hard class or something (I think maybe because lots of people who go to library school weren’t all that good at math2 ), but I find that if I pay attention in class, I actually remember stuff and have to study less.

Wow.

I can’t seem to escape how this sounds like a scolding teacher saying “pay attention in class!” That’s too bad, because I want to jump up and down like I’ve stumbled on some new discovery. Oh my gosh! This class thing sometimes actually works!

Here’s the thing: as a member of this generation, I feel like I constantly should be multi-tasking. I could be responding to e-mail in class, and thereby being more efficient, so, clearly, I should be. I feel foolish—almost guilty—if I don’t.

That’s why I want to make a public affirmation that when I am sitting there with my lowly low-tech pen and paper, I am being as efficient as I possibly can be because I am focusing on the material. That’s the best way for me to learn it, and it means that I’ll have to study less later.

And not having my computer within reach makes it so much easier to exercise self-control. When I had it with me last year, I would try to pay attention, but I’d find myself on the New York Times or Facebook, honestly without even realizing I’d gone there. My brain really has a mind of its own.

Again: when I am in front of the computer, that is how my mind operates. I do not like this.

I wonder if the other students I see on Gmail and Facebook and blogs actively don’t care about class, or if they have actually wired their brains so that they can not help themselves when the computer is in front of them, like me?

So because I know it’s a struggle to discipline myself minute-by-minute by not bringing it, I’m disciplining myself in one fell swoop3 by not bringing it.

I’ll be able to use the time I save now—by really learning the material—to do more high-quality e-mailing and Internet surfing later.

So if you’re in class now, I won’t be offended if you log off my blog and pay attention. If you’re still here, though, post a comment and share: are you a student? Were you recently? If so, do you/would you bring your computer to class? Do you feel it helps or hinders your learning? (I imagine there’s probably a mix for most people.)

  1. Actually, cave people didn’t have books yet. They didn’t even have clay tablets.
  2. I, for the record, was okay but not great.
  3. I used to think it was one foul swoop, and I wondered what was foul about it. I also used to think things got taken for granite, like they were hard as rocks and unmovable. Hey, it made sense to me. I also like digressing. Maybe this is one reason I’m more vulnerable to Internet-based distraction than most.
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Page numbers are good. And don’t condescend to your librarian.

September 20, 2010

Hi everyone. Life is, as usual, nearly out of control. I have a couple pending posts which I’m looking forward to posting soon, but today I have to work on a policy paper about Net Neutrality, which (though I am currently at work) I should be working on now. But instead I would like to take this moment to blog about something that just happened that is (a.) relevant and (b.) annoying.

A student just came in looking for books. He was annoyed because his professor had assigned readings based on page numbers, but his iPad e-reader (on which he has the books) does not have page numbers. Therefore, he needs to look at a paper copy of the book so that he can figure out what he needs to read.

He was nice enough to me at first, as I am not his professor at which his anger was directed, but he was clearly annoyed at the backwardness of old people assigning him “dead tree books” and making him go out of his way to figure out what to read when he has the superior form of technology in hand already.

“Your e-reader doesn’t have page numbers?” I said. This was news to me. (No doubt to the professor, too.)

“It’s because of the way the information flows. Page numbers are superfluous,” he said.

“Is there a way to tell people what to read without them, then?”

I have been smiling and friendly through this whole encounter, and asked out of curiosity. But instead of answering this question, he informs me (in an “I’m doing you the favor of talking down to you” tone of voice), “If you understood the design of the technology, you would see why page numbers are useless.”

Okay, but you still don’t know what to read for your assignment.

I understand that physical paper is not necessary anymore, and I get how they are superfluous in one sense in that there are no pieces of paper. But some kind of numbering system (like verses in the Bible if you don’t want numbered pages) is still critical for breaking your information into chunks, as — evidently — you don’t know which chunks of information to read without them.

I’d love it if some other people would answer the question this student didn’t answer. How DO you find sections of a book on an e-reader? Do all of them lack page numbers? Is there some other way of dividing information that would work better on an e-reader? I really find it hard to believe that all e-readers are like this. It’d be great to hear from people with experience with different kinds of them. I’ve played with Kindles a little bit before; am I correct in recalling that those do have “page” numbers? Why doesn’t an iPad?

“Page” numbers seem like a good choice to me, at least for the next couple decades during which paper books will still be widely used. If all you have is a flow of information without any markers or signposts, that’s not going to be very useful.

As this student himself discovered.

But instead he felt it necessary to lecture the librarian on how she didn’t understand technology and why it makes more sense for the technology not to be encumbered with page numbers.

Last I heard, the book was supposed to work for the reader, not the reader for the book. This isn’t a question of understanding technology. It’s a question of understanding usability. Don’t assume your librarian is just a dead-tree-hugger when all she wants is for you to be able to find the chunks of information you need, and your computer is the one that’s not making it easy for you to find those chunks.

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Why, despite the digital revolution, I spent over $200 on textbooks this term

September 15, 2010

The semester has just started, which means it’s time to figure out how I’m going to get access to the information I have to read for class. (Or rather, it was last week when I started this post, but then I had to, you know read the material once I got access to it.)

Last year, I tried to read as much as possible on the computer, in order to save money. I got the reading materials through a course management system. If you’re a student right now, you can skip this paragraph because you already know how this works, but for those who haven’t attended an institute of higher learning in the past half-decade or so, I’ll explain. The University of Michigan uses a course management system called CTools. (There are other systems in use at other schools, like Blackboard or Moodle.) On CTools, I can log in and follow links to any of my courses, where there will be folders of all the readings available for me to download. These are usually in PDF form, though some are Word documents or HTML files.

One professor even went out of his way to use materials for class that are all available at no cost, including the textbook itself. There is a PDF version of the entire book available from the publisher on-line, and he told us where to download it. I have it on a flash drive.

And yet, I just went out and bought the $45 paper version.

Another professor recommended five books that he said would serve us well in the future; nevertheless, all the readings we have to do from them are available on CTools.

I went to Amazon.com and bought all of those, too.1

I’ve also been using up precious print credits printing out chapters and journal articles that we can’t buy in textbooks off of CTools to read away from my computer.

Am I crazy?

For some reason, I just wanted the paper versions. But it costs money and I am a poor grad student and I don’t have money. Indulging in paper textbooks seems like, at best, a luxury, and more likely, utter foolishness. I mean, I already had the book on my flash drive, for free! A fellow student, who overheard me in the School of Information lounge discussing what I paid for my game theory textbook at the campus bookstore and felt compelled to speak up to tell me where I could get the problems for free, surely thought I was nuts.

So, of course, I pondered this.

And here’s why, after a year of trying to read as much as possible on PDF, I decided this year to just buy the paper versions.

My computer is a Distraction Machine. Though this isn’t the only reason I bought the books, it’s the primary one. I have finally concluded that I cannot successfully focus on my reading assignments on a computer (or at least not efficiently, and I have a lot of reading to do, so I need to be efficient). It’s not because of a personal failing. Well, maybe that too, I don’t know; if so, it’s a common personal failing. But I’d argue that the way the Internet works strongly encourages my mind to function in a certain way when I sit down in front of the computer, and that way of thinking (unfortunately for my attempts at paper and novel writing) does not, by its very nature, promote focus.

That means that I can read more efficiently if I am looking at a document on paper. No matter how much I try to equate the two things—document on paper = document on screen—my mind seems to be interacting with the paper text differently than it does with the screen.

No matter how much technology advances, I expect paper will continue to be better in this respect until they devise a way to put a “check mail” button on the pages of bound paper documents.

That was, as I said, the primary reason. There are some secondary ones: for example, it’s still easier for me to take notes and engage with the material on paper. I believe Adobe and some other companies are working to change this; some friends are already using their products, but in my opinion, the software hasn’t gotten there yet. (At least not with any technology I feel like paying for. The $200 I spent on textbooks could possibly have gone toward that instead, but first they would need to overcome the primary problem of the distraction machine.) Lately, I have become a big fan of not merely highlighting or underlining, but also writing in the margins. Sometimes I put stars and smiley faces. I think I drew a set of triplet frowny faces in a recent book I read at a part that particularly upset me. I remember that book even better for having interacted with it through doodles, rather than just highlighting and notes. Can any digital reader currently do this? Technology will eventually let us, I’m sure, but as far as I know it’s not there yet. I also hear from my roommate, who has had two generations of Kindles, that it’s hard to write in the margins and then combine those notes with other people’s margin notes. This past year, I have discovered that I love having multiple people write in the margins of my nonfiction books.

Also, reading books—by which I mean paper codices—gives me less eyestrain and related headaches when I’m stuck reading them for hours on end. I know e-book readers are working on making this better these days. One day it will probably get better, but paper is still easier on me this way.

So to sum it up, I engage more with paper material, so I retain more. I’m in less physical discomfort when I read it. And, most importantly, I’m less easily distracted, and therefore more efficient. I stay on one train of thought more effectively than I do when I try to read PDFs on the computer.

For those benefits, it was well worth it to me to pay $200 for the luxury of paper. Some who can not afford even this much (let alone the much steeper prices that undergraduates often have to pay for the range of hardcover textbooks they must buy) will be stuck reading in a way that seems to me to be less conducive to learning, but I am fortunate enough to be able to afford this luxury.

Of course, I had to pick that over the price of a smart phone. I’m still a poor grad student, after all.

1 Thanks for the year of free two-day shipping, Amazon! I’m still going to buy my fun books at Borders, but you have successfully earned my textbook business. Except for the game theory text which I bought at the campus bookstore, because it was right there in front of me when I went in. Location, location, location.

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Introduction and Welcome

September 15, 2010

Sometimes I feel exceedingly lucky to live in the Information Age and have access to the Internet: one of the most revolutionary, empowering, and exciting inventions ever.

Other times, I’m afraid we’ve created a monster that is sucking out our souls.

But most of the time (until I enrolled at an iSchool a year ago, anyway) I don’t even think about it. For over half of my life now, the Internet has been woven deeply into it. It’s my generation’s normal.

There’s no doubt that many of the high points of my life were made possible by the Internet. From being able to share my writing with people as far away as Australia or the Middle East, to living in Japan for three years—something I doubt I would have had the courage to do without e-mail and VoIP— to simply having access to far more information easier than ever before, I can definitely say that the Internet has been a force for good in my life.

That being said, I’m starting to feel like my Internet usage habits—no, scratch that, my entire paradigm of information absorption for education, social interaction, entertainment, and just general purpose use might be taking some kind of toll on me.

So I started this blog to explore those issues.

There’s a certain irony to that, given that one of the major things I am contemplating is whether we simply have too much information being constantly dumped in our laps. If you already have so much coming at you that you just can not take another blog, then I would strongly support your choice not to follow this one.

If, however, you keep managing to squeeze each new blog that interests you into your RSS feed, this might be for you—especially if you’ve ever felt that you’ll never be able to stay on top of it all, but want to keep trying anyway.

This blog will be my attempt to understand my own (and from there, my peers’ and society’s) Internet usage. From there, I’ll try to come up with some “best practices” for a life that maximizes the benefits of the digital lifestyle, while identifying and minimizing its drawbacks.

The primary question is, can we escape the latter without giving up the former?

A secondary question is, do you consider the same things “benefits” and “drawbacks” that I do? (And if not, tertiarily, can our standards mesh? What can we do when they don’t? What happens to society if we can’t answer that?)

To help me answer that second question, I hope you’ll join in the conversation by posting comments! (I flatter myself by presuming that my friends already know that I’m always open to a differing opinion, and that others will see me prove that. Which isn’t to say I won’t sometimes disagree vehemently; just that I won’t disagree maliciously!)

Here are some key principles I’ll have in mind as I ponder these issues:

  • Sometimes the new way of doing things is better, and sometimes it’s not. Knee-jerk reactions in either direction must always be suspect.
  • To some extent, we all get carried along by technological change. But we should fight being passively carried along by it; rather, we want to actively embrace it, when it’s good to do so.
  • Sometimes something might seem better but have unanticipated side effects or drawbacks to which we are simply accustomed; then again, sometimes something seems better and actually is better. And sometimes something seems to serve no real purpose and, indeed, has no real purpose. (Google Wave, I’m looking at you.)
  • Self-reflection is the way to improve one’s own life and technological practices.
  • Conversation is the first step to improving our collective lives.

And my ultimate goal?

To accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative…

and to control my Internet use rather than letting it control me.

With that, let the blogging commence. Welcome to Too Much Information, and I hope I’ll see you around!

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