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The Machine Stops

One of the challenges of having been involved in digital learning for nearly two decades is how to manage the monster our work, in some ways, perpetuates.

What do I mean? All good teachers know that real and sustainable learning is built upon reflection and making deep cognitive connections. These connections cannot be made in a distracted state—and yet never has distraction been so easy to come by.

The mental strength to resist it (distraction) is something our children need to learn—and I fear not many will. It is not a strength that we (by which I mean middle-aged people: I’m nearly 50) can teach them, really: we don’t have this strength ourselves. We are just as addicted to our devices as kids. and we never had to learn the value of resistance to its siren-song. Sometimes I thank the Gods that I did not grow up in the social media age. I think I would have found it deeply debilitating.

Like many, I fear that people who are unable to detach themselves from the addictive cycle of distraction and affirmation will lead unfulfilling, restless lives. I see it now.

This is elegantly expressed by the late Oliver Sacks in an essay posthumously published by the New Yorker. Here’s a representative quote:

Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.

You can read the whole piece here.

On a lighter note, I once met Oliver Sacks at a party in New York, shortly before he died. I was able to ask him (the author of “Musicophilia”) a question about music that has preoccupied me for some years: Why does a minor third sound “sad”? What is it about dropping that half-note that makes the interval (when played on its own, out of any surrounding context) unmistakably melancholy?

He thought for a second or two, then said that he didn’t really know. And neither did anyone else.


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