Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2012
Digital Revolution, Human Institutions
Cathy Davidson WF '70 studies attention and information in the 21st century
Photo: Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography
"Distraction is our friend," says Dr. Cathy Davidson WF '70. She explains, "The most efficient patterns we have come from learning and repetition." Yet that very efficiency can lead to what she calls attention blindness. "Once behavior becomes habitual, we don't see it anymore, and the only way we see it is through disruption. Technology is one of those things that disrupts our patterns, so suddenly we start seeing our habits in a way we didn't before."
Co-founder and principal administrator of Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), Dr. Davidson is also serving a six-year term on President Obama's National Council on the Humanities. She describes her new book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn as a "learning theory of brain biology." Exploring how the brain learns and develops, Dr. Davidson applies the notion of attention blindness at two levels—the individual's ability to unlearn and re-learn and the way society structures its intake of information.
At the first, individual level, she says, "the only way you can focus on anything is by shutting out everything else. That's a great gift that we have as humans, but it also means that the more we focus in one direction, the more we don't see in another. The problem is we're not even aware our attention is selective. That's one reason why the largest proportion of accidents occur within five miles of home. You're driving along , you think you're seeing things, but probably your mind is wandering—then something happens and you don't even see it until there's a disruption, or an accident. Because [the road] looks so familiar to you, you believe you focusing but you're also not focusing. And that's the single most important part of attention blindness."
The second, more societal level of Dr. Davidson's argument is more metaphorical. "We've spent the last 100 years learning a kind of timely and even timed attention to task measured by metrics that aren't intrinsic to learning but are divorced from learning. [We do] tests in school and human resource evaluations that aren't part of the learning process, but are a form of productivity as measured by some static, extrinsic metric that goes back to Taylorization. Yet now we're in a do-it-yourself mash-up, remix, work-anytime culture where the world bleeds into our work life and our work life bleeds into our home life and the metrics don't measure our new forms of work. We've been trained to give a certain type of focused attention to task in a world where that doesn't really apply anymore."
The fact that today's schools and businesses were shaped largely by the 19th century for the industrial age, says Dr. Davidson, should give us hope that we can re-think some of those institutions for the 21st century. For example, during industrialization, institutions had to be created to reshape behavior as people moved from farms to factories or from shops to firms. Different rules about attention to tasks, individual achievement, hierarchy, and place within a larger managed structure were needed. "Now here we are in the 21st century with the digital information age, but we're still trying to keep up with the 20th century. We're still educating young people pretty much as if the Internet didn't exist—both in K-12 and in some ways even more so on the university level. These institutions in their current form evolved over the last 100 years, so we can think right now about making new ones that reflect the new ways we interact with one another as a democracy, as thinkers and workers, as learners."
As vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, Dr. Davidson was charged to create true cross-university programs. Committed to use technology in innovative ways, she and her team came up with an idea to use an increasingly popular music player to inspire student-driven learning.
In 2003, when the iPod was still a simple one-way personal music-listening device, Dr. Davidson and her colleagues decided to give one to all incoming Duke freshmen. When upperclassmen complained that they had missed out, Dr. Davidson and her colleagues offered an incentive: "We said they could have free iPods if they could come up with a really ingenious use for the iPod for education and convince a faculty member to build the iPod into the syllabus," she says. Soon, students across campus had invented a wide variety of uses for the iPod: a diagnostic tool for heart arrhythmias, an interactive simulator that would let users sing along with famous musicians, even an environmental studies project that led to some of the earliest podcasts. Within one semester, Duke had given away more iPods to student innovators than to the entire freshman class.
"We have a really hard time seeing innovation because we measure in such a standardized fashion," says Dr. Davidson. "So much of our life is based on standardized metrics and binary logic that we have a hard time being our own exception in the world"—in legal and medical systems, in the workplace, and in schools." Crowdsourcing of the sort that occurs on Wikipedia, she believes, presses us to revisit our old idea of human nature, that humans only work and contribute when measured individually and compensated for their productivity. "I went back to 2002 to see if anyone predicted Wikipedia's success. No one did, not even Jimmy Wales, one of its cofounders. There was a good deal of rational choice economic theory in 2002 that would have predicted Wikipedia was impossible, that no one would take the time and effort to contribute their knowledge for free to an online encyclopedia that would be available for free, or that 1200 people around the world would volunteer to be editors using the most scrupulous, even conservative standards of what counted as evidence." The result: the biggest, multi-lingual encyclopedia in human history, that is now one of the 10 most visited websites. "Nobody could have even imagined that humans were capable of that kind of collaborative, non-profit productivity. It's not part of the industrial age equation."
Dr. Davidson now sees crowdsourcing as a growing worldwide phenomenon; she cites such examples as the Arab spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Stop PIPA blackout, and even medical research. "We don't even have a word for global democratic actions without leaders, activism spreading globally in a rhizomatic networked way," she says. "These are some pretty fundamental things about our world that have changed since April 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was commercialized and suddenly we could all go to the Internet, which had been around for quite a while for scientists and academics and government. It's remarkable."
As with any advancement or invention, she says, resistance to change is inevitable. When she first started hearing complaints about the Internet—how it would make humans shallow and immature, how it would leave children susceptible to predators—Dr. Davidson realized they echoed Thomas Jefferson's criticisms of the novel, as well as arguments about industrial technology in the late 18th and 19th centuries. She has one word for those concerned about the deleterious effects of technology: "Relax."
"We've gone through an amazing change since 1993. One generation in, this is a time to be introspective, to figure out what we need from this technology. We have to figure out what we need from our institutions to help us take the most advantage of new technologies we have and to be the most protected from their risks." She is optimistic about finding ways to use new technologies for the better. In the new digital world, she says, "learning itself is a challenge and learning is challenged, constantly putting our knowledge to the test. You learn something and you teach it to somebody on line. 'Do it yourself' is the motto of the Internet and we need institutions that teach us how to do it that well and collectively."
Dr. Davidson is in the process of working with a graphic novelist to create a young adult version of Now You See It, for teachers and high school students. "Now You See It is really designed to be part of a paradigm shift to help us lose our attention blindness about the digital age—to be productive in this new world we live in," she says. "Right now my mission is to go into institutions that are thinking about change and help them to be introspective about what they need and how they can achieve it."