Paperless and distracted

Posted Mar 27, 2012 | New Media Project


By Jason Byassee

I had the odd experience recently of lecturing for no audience—only a video camera. I didn’t enjoy it. How could I gauge their reaction? How could I tell if I’d perplexed them or blessed them? Of course this has been done before. Every lecture I’ve ever viewed on video or online was likely delivered in a studio as mine was. It’s not new for the world; just new for me.

What did I do about it? I took to Facebook to complain, of course. Or to “moast.” I read somewhere that this is what the Facebook Generation does: we boast and moan at the same time. “You think you got it bad? Top this.” I kvetched, “How can I tell if the jokes are any good?” My academic friends commiserated … to a point. One needled: “Are your jokes ever any good?” A parishioner chimed in “It’ll be like Sunday morning. You tell us you’ve told us a joke and we’ll laugh.” Facebook: the answer for the over-extended ego.

Actually I shouldn’t say I had no audience. The cameraman was there. I saw him crack a smile once—in 56 minutes.

The pedagogical premise here was that ordination candidates preparing to write their papers could watch the lecture on their own time and then come to campus with me or another teacher and go over things that require a warm body. To a degree, I’m sympathetic with this aim. Do we really need to tie up a group’s concentration for 60 minutes for content delivery? That said, my joke about the jokes is serious. I can’t read their faces through the video camera lens. At the end of each section of my lecture, I would normally stop and ask for questions. This not only allows me to clarify, it allows them to notice threads that I hadn’t. Some of my best teaching is this sort of unplanned response to questions. In front of the camera, by contrast, I would get to the end of a section and say, “Ok, enough about that. Now this."

NPR recently had a report on Beth Israel hospital, a paragon of virtue for the way it has gone as paperless as possible. It counts on employees to use smartphones to fill out reports and consult with specialists. One doctor pointed out this has its limits: “A paperless hospital is as likely as a paperless toilet.” He pointed out that a staggering percentage of doctors admit to checking smartphones and texting during surgery. And he mentioned being consulted via an emailed image about a potentially poisonous plant. The obvious problem is that a smartphone screen isn’t big enough to see the image well. He gave the chilling example of a resident who went to her phone to enter a drug change, got an email invite to a party, and got so wrapped up in RSVP’ing that she forgot to complete the drug change. The patient almost died. Another doctor tried to compensate: “There are always distractions in the hospital,” pointing to the nurses who apparently interrupt the good doctor entirely too much (this is not comforting news to a patient). I disagree with that doctor: The problem with the devices is that they keep our attention at a low level of distraction constantly. We think we’re multitasking, but really we’re failing to focus on anything.

I keep banging this drum because I fear the rhetoric around digital technology suggests we should do everything online. We should do what’s good to do online—but not everything. I’m unsure whether lecturing qualifies (indeed, prognosticators say we may be nearing the end of the lecture as a learning form altogether). Friendship can be extended and kept alive online, but it must also become embodied to grow. So too with church involvement, service, worship—essentially all the stuff Jesus says to do. We can do a lot online (Robert Jenson, one of our generation’s greatest theologians, suggests theology can be conducted online, just not worship), but perhaps not nearly as much as we like to think.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

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