Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Awareness Online

“The more kids are involved with digital content creation, the more thinkers will emerge that will eventually produce tomorrow’s innovative products.”

Sounds like the quote of some kind of cultural/technological theorist, but it’s not. Nope, that’s the quote Brendan Erazo, a 15-year-old Florida high school student from a New York Times article titled, “The Lives of Teenagers Now: Open Blogs, Not Locked Diaries”. Not surprisingly, I think Erazo’s right on. This is a generation growing up with a completely different relationship to information. Erazo himself, “mixes and publishes his own Christian-themed dance tracks under the name DJ Xsjado at the Kids’ Internet Radio Project (projectkir.org).” He’s not alone either, according to a new Pew report titled Teen Content Creators and Consumers, some 57% of teens are content creators.

Think about that number. This is a group of people who teachers struggle with to do their homework or write a 500-word essay. But every day, millions of them are sitting in front of the computer and creating. With that said, however, it’s those taking it a step further that I find even more encouraging. According to the same study, 19% of internet-using teens are content remixers (as opposed to 18% of adults). That means nearly one in five of them have a hyperactive relationship with content.

Instead of coming home and watching cartoons, they’re remixing them.

This is so important because an active relationship with content encourages self-reflexivity. Think about it. All you bloggers out there, how much time do you spend thinking about what you’re going to blog? How many situations or articles do you read with an eye towards whether it will make good fodder for an entry? It’s only natural, and it’s incredibly important. Kids seldom are encouraged to think in that way at school. Instead, they’re just told they need to know these things “because.” No one was ever able to answer to me why I’d need to know calculus (which may account for why I’ve had ZERO use for it since I left 12th grade). But seriously, there was never any good reason to read with any seriousness, because the bigger picture was seldom articulated. Why should I spend a year learning chemistry? (Yes, I know that some people grow up to be chemists, but I could have told you then — and still tell you now — chemistry’s not in my future.) Anyway, if high school is about exposing young people to lots of different subjects how come I took three sciences in four years?

With the abundance of information available on the net, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best way to become informed is to take in lots of little pieces, rather than a few big ones. George Siemens examined this shift in a recent blog entry:

What happens when we change how we interact with information? We “ramp up” our processing habits. Instead of reading, we skim. Instead of exploring and responding to each item, we try and link it to existing understanding. We move (in regards to most information we encounter) from specific to general thinking…from deep to shallow thinking. Shallow thinking, in this sense, isn’t as negative as its connotations. Shallow thinking (perhaps I need a better phrase) involves exploring many different sources of information without focusing too heavily on one source. Aggregating at this level helps us to stay informed across broad disciplines. So much of education intends to provide “deep learningâ€?. Often, however, “shallow learning is desiredâ€? (i.e. we want to know of a concept, but we don’t have time or interest to explore it deeply). All we need at this stage is simply the understanding (awareness?) that it exists. Often, learning is simply about opening a door…

The awareness of one’s self and actions is integral to becoming a good thinker. Some of the smartest people in history, Einstein comes to mind immediately, had trouble concentrating on any one target. Malcolm Gladwell, author and connector extraordinaire, explains, “I guess I’ve always been a horizontal thinker, not a vertical one. I don’t have the patience to dig down into a subject, so I’m left instead with the need to go sideways and try and link together disparate ideas.”

The beauty of the internet is that it affords everyone the same opportunity Gladwell has to everyone. He’s a professional journalist who essentially gets paid to read a little about lots of different things and then connect them, but thanks to the abundance of content and new delivery mechanisms, I can structure my consumption habits in just the same way. I don’t need to read books. My reading habits are not left to the discretion of a newspaper. I create my own media landscape, then I contribute to it. Those kind of consumption habits make me very aware of my own thinking because they force me to constantly make my own choices. Do I want to read this feed or that one, this blog or the other? I don’t have the New York Times here to tell me what the most important story is unless I choose to visit them. Even then, I have hundreds of other sources competing for attention.

The abundance of choice makes me more aware of my decisions. When you shop online there is something far more active about it. Online you don’t throw that $5 thing in your cart on the way out and then regret you bought it. If you buy it online you have no one to blame but yourself. There were plenty of opportunities to back out as you were asked to confirm everything sixteen times. Esther Dyson, CNET editor and futurist, explains it like this

The fundamental change is that most individuals have more choice. They also have more responsibility: if they don’t like the way things are, they can’t complain as much–at least not with moral justification. And not everybody likes that. It can be comfortable just to follow orders. But if you consider that most people have a better chance of getting what they want because they have more choices, then by and large, there’s progress. People have more choice: they have more power “to,” even though they don’t have more power “over.”

I think she’s right on. When you’re on the net, every cause (click) has an obvious effect. We’re more aware of our actions, and that’s a damn good thing.

November 4, 2005