Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Big wave surfing in the information ocean

The other day while in the car I heard a piece on NPR noting Marshall McLuhan's 100th birthday. McLuhan's seminal "The Medium is the Massage" (1967) was a big influence on me during graduate school, particularly in the development of my thesis research. My favorite quote:
It is a matter of the greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive "outside" world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discovery--to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.
Even though more than four decades have passed, the struggle continues between the classroom and the outside world. I believe that part of this struggle is self-made: schools are structured by the choices we make, and we have chosen a model for education that creates a boundary between the classroom and the outside world. With that said, I also see the establishment of a boundary as one of the key elements of vitality, in the living sense of the word; a membrane is a necessary structure for living things. How, then, does the cell manage the challenges of separation? It uses energy to make its membrane semi-permeable. With respect to the outside world, some aspects remain in balance, while others are actively included and others are actively excluded.

With this analogy in mind, the struggle between the classroom and the outside world can be re-framed. What informational media do we wish to maintain in balance? What informational media do we wish to include in greater proportion? What informational media do we wish to exclude? However, even if we can answer these questions, I believe that McLuhan's argument is that they are fundamentally less important than another question: how will we process the informational media that we bring into the classroom space?

In thinking about this question, I want to bring up another McLuhan reference: he was the first to use the word "surfing" to describe the way that people access and process the new and various forms of informational media he observed - in relatively small pieces, with rapid, multi-directional changes in motion. Although "surfing" is still a commonly-used term applied to how we access and process information waves, there's now a new type of in-water, sport surfing that wasn't possible during the time that McLuhan lived: big-wave surfing.

As legendary big-wave surfer Ken Bradshaw (seen above) described for the PBS program "Nature", big-wave surfing emerged in the 1990's as a result of the development of "true personal watercraft" that allow surfers to be towed-in, so as to catch these monstrous waves as they break (at speeds that made them previously uncatchable).  I hope you've watched the video, not only to see his accomplishment, nor simply to be in awe at the raw power of the ocean, but also to observe the movement of a big-wave surfer like Ken Bradshaw.  Unlike the small-wave surfers with moves that are short, quick, and multi-directional, big-wave surfers are powerful masters of holding a line, taking a direction, and harnessing the massive power of the wave behind them.

With this in mind, I believe that the development of true personal computers (smartphones and tablets) allows us to access information waves that are analogous to the monstrous swells of ocean water that big-wave surfers seek out. The problem, though, is that many people have jumped right into the big waves - email, web, texting, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so many other sources of information on very agile devices.  Bradshaw notes that big-wave water surfers tend to be in their late twenties or in their thirties, with lots of experience and progression through varying levels of difficulty.  Yet while some big-wave information surfers have experience in smaller-wave information surfing on a desktop computer, or perhaps even larger-wave experience through having a laptop, many don't (or don't have much), and most have jumped right in rather than developing skills in progression. Even though information surfing is different from water surfing, water surfing isn't the only kind of surfing with negative risks.

The Economist, in the article "Too Much Information", notes some of the potential downsides of unsuccessful big-wave information surfing: anxiety, lowered creativity, and lowered productivity. Just as Bradshaw describes the danger of the "triple hold", this trifecta of risks is dangerous to both personal and professional well-being. Techniques suggested for successful big-wave information surfing include focusing, filtering, and forgetting. Successful big-wave water surfers practice their craft with training and thoughtfulness and appropriate rest; with the same approach we will be able to harness the power of these giant sources of information, and develop those same skills in students in our classroom. Wouldn't it be awe inspiring to see our graduates holding a line and mastering the force of such giant waves of information?

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