Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, recently closed the National Coaching Conference for Educators with a suggestion to move away from false appeal associated with social media. Instead, he encouraged educators to spend their time focusing on ‘deep work’. To support this, Scott spoke about the work of Cal Newport. Ignoring the segmented nature of schools (see Richard Wells) or what we focus on (see Audrey Watters), the debate around reclaiming our attention is not new. However, Newport’s call to close accounts has been doing the rounds. After watching his TED Talk though, three questions puzzled me: what is social media, what is work and how do I differentiate the changes in my mind?

What is ‘social media’ anyway?

The message is clear, get off social media, your career depends upon it. Newport explains that interesting opportunities are not dependent on being online and in fact social media is harmful (see for example Doug Belshaw’s post on Facebook). Although I did not go and close all my accounts, Newport’s video did lead me to reflect on the place of social media within my life. However, as I watched the TEDTalk I thought that maybe I was misunderstanding his message. With his reference to RSS, it seemed that he was suggesting getting rid of all dynamic content? In many respects, social media is just as ambiguous as digital literacies. Is it how we use it? Is there something baked into applications or inherent in various web formats? Does it depend on if the application calls itself a media company? Are applications like ClassDojo or Seesaw examples of social media too? This was all confounded by the fact that Newport, someone who proudly flaunts the fact that he has never had a social media account, himself has a blog.

Finish at Five

Late in the presentation, Newport shares how he rarely works beyond five. This is such an interesting point, which leaves me wondering when ‘work’ starts and stops? People like David Culberhouse and Steve Brophy get up early in the morning to read, to write, to reflect. If they do not check email, does that mean that it is not ‘work’? What is work? My other concern is with the work that we ask people to do. As an educator, I feel uncomfortable telling an specialist teacher with 400+ that the reason they are working long hours to get reports written is because they are not committing themselves to ‘deep work’. Deep work is often associated with flow, I have never entered such a state while compiling reports. Maybe some work is always shallow?

Minds Changed

One of the concerns that Newport raises is that the instant gratification provided by social media rewires the brain.

The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Our inability to commit ourselves to concentrating for lengthy periods of time means that we are unable to complete deep work. Maybe it is just me, but being a parent has taught me to seize the minute. If my daughter is asleep on my knee or I am waiting for pick up I often use my phone to dip into some reading. I get moments. I make the most of them to dig down into awesome ideas that I may not get the chance to do at ‘work’. In regards to putting on headphones or going into an office speaks of privilege? Then again, maybe it is just my broken brain.

In the end, I may have been hooked in by the click-bait nature of the New York Times and the TED Talk? Not sure. Maybe at some point I need to stop doing such shallow readings and dive into a deep reading of Newport’s book?

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Questions for Cal by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

22 thoughts on “Questions for Cal

  1. “dive into a deep reading of Newport’s book?”

    Mission accomplished. It may well be that Mr. Newport believes all he says, but I would bet he would very much like it that you buy his book.

    The lure of social media is real. I know it.
    For some, the lure of the telephone is even greater.
    Making connections (however ephemeral) is human nature.

    Going in the opposite direction, to the extreme, “deep think” about hermits who write endless journal pages of import (if only to them).

    A balance, though, might be worth considering. Use the comments you see and hear to spur your own thoughts. Take a walk while disconnected and mix the sights and sounds of nature around you with those gleaned thoughts of others. Make something new as a result.

    If the “new” thing is not earthshaking, that is OK, too.

  2. Cal, you have provided an interesting take on the IndieWeb. I must admit I am always mindful and sometimes sceptical about it being the solution for all. As you touch upon, some may simply choose to retreat to the idyllic life.
    The only problem I have with this is that it frames the IndieWeb as a response to a specific problem, that is social media. Personally, I see it as a reimagining of blogging and online interaction, as much as it is a solution to social media. As Ben Werdmuller highlights, POSSEing to social media sites has its limits.
    One of the things that I value about my IndieWeb site is a record of my interactions. I think that reclaiming this information provides the foundation for even richer explorations.
    This framing of social media was something I was left questioning after watching your TED Talk.

  3. In an edited extract from The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour touches on the addictive nature of social media. Whether it be positive or negative, it feeds our tendency for more. It reminds me of the Two Minutes of Hate in George Orwell’s 1984. This is something that Cal Newport touches upon. The question I was left wondering is whether blogging and platforms like WordPress are any different? If so, how?

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