Choosing what I believe is the Book of the Year is always a fun task —what new book each year most informs, illuminates, and influences me?     2008 the nod went to Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap (Godin’s Tribes the close runner-up), 2009 Perkins’ Making Learning Whole,  and 2010 was the year of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (with Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus close behind.)  In 2011 John Seely Brown’s New Culture of Learning took my prize.  (Christensen’s Innovators DNA and McGonigal’s Reality is Broken were also contenders.)

2012 is only half over, and it isn’t impossible that my current nominee will be toppled, but I don’t think it likely.   Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online is terrific: ambitious in scope but humble in tone; enthusiastic about opportunities but tempered by the recognition of the risks and downsides;  sweeping in its broad-brushed depiction of our new era of empowerment and participation while specific in its suggestions of precise techniques and initiatives we can take to best leverage our staggeringly new connectivity.

It should be said that this valuable book is a bit more work than most of the other titles mentioned above.   Johnson’s book was popular in airports, published by mainstream presses and written in a very general non-fiction manner, intended for wider audiences and reasonably easily read on a cross-country flight.   Brown’s book is breezy and accessible, with large font and charming anecdotes, easily able to be read over a 90 minute flight.   Rheingold, by contrast, is published by MIT press, with smaller font size and a greater seriousness— it isn’t an academic monograph, but will take more concentrated and extended attention than the others.

As I noted already in my previous post, Rheingold deserves great credit for his carefully nuanced balance of enthusiasm and sobriety about digital engagement and connected-ness, for which I am so appreciative.    Digital media is (or are, if you prefer) a great gift to us and to our abilities to form community, to collaborate and create, and to gather information and to contribute information, to participate and contribute to the wider world in ways we never had before.

Used mindfully, how can digital media help us grow smarter?  My years of study and experience have led me to conclude that humans are humans because we invent thinking and communicating tools that enable us to do bigger, more powerful things together.

Digital media and the networks digital media make possible create new opportunities for citizenship, for civic engagement and social-political impact, that are ushering in a new era, an era that is very exciting and meaningful.

Learning to participate effectively online is a matter of mindset and practice– and the payoff can be big… Done mindfully, digital participation helps build a more democratic, more diverse culture. Knowing how to blog, tweet, wiki, search, innovate, program, and/or organize online can lead to political, cultural, and economic value.”

Unlike some of the other digital optimists and evangelists, Rheingold recognizes and engages with the necessary negatives of a digital media world.     Better than anyone else, he helped me to understand the importance of attention as the ultimate, finite, precious resource, one which must be constantly attended to, strengthened as a muscle, husbanded for our productivity.   “When it comes to the interacting with the world of always-on info, the fundamental skill, on which other essential skills depend, is the ability to deal with distraction without filtering out opportunity.”

Too often, the digital media advocates, and I count myself in this category, have overlooked or understated this issue, usually by ignoring it altogether.  In some cases, the advocates go far too far far to praise the online life, “your brain on the internet,” that  they lead our advocacy into almost ridiculous extremes, as I fear Cathy Davidson does in her otherwise excellent book, Now You See it.    To quote Davidson:

Incongruity, disruption, and disorientation may well turn out to be the most inspiring, creative, and productive forces one can add to the workplace…  In a diverse, interconnected, and changing world, being distracted from our business as usual may not be a downside but the key to success.

Rheingold’s chapter on Attention offers valuable suggestions for strengthening our mindfulness by using meditation, goal-setting, “intentionality,”  and other tools to become more metacognitive and more intentional about how we concentrate in the times when we choose to do so.    In a very valuable way, he also engages with the critics, with the authors such as a Carr, Turkle and Johnson.    This section deserves commendation especially for its remarkable tone: would that we were all (would that I were) so respectful, nuanced,  and honorable in addressing the ideas of our intellectual opponents.

Carr’s book the Shallows has been oft-cited as an authority on how the internet is making us stupid, but as much as Rheingold is happy to accept that there is value in solitude and that our brains are changing, he also confronts directly the idea that we should long for some nostalgic pre-internet past.   Here he usefully quotes Shirky’s rebuttal of Carr:

We’re facing a similar challenge to the arrival of the printing press, caused again by abundance, and taking it on again will again mean altering our historic models for the summa bonum of educated life.  It will be hard and complicated; abundance precipitates greater social change than scarcity.  But the older habits of consumption weren’t virtuous; they were just a side effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.  Nostalgia for the accidental scarcity we’ve just emerged from is just a sideshow; the main event is trying to shape the greatest expansion of expressive capability the world has ever known.

Ultimately, Rheingold judges Carr, though far more widely recognized, as a less significant thinker on these issues than Maggie Jackson, whose book Distracted, The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age is very carefully examined here.    We should be worried: “We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus.”

Rheingold embraces rather than refutes Jackson:  “I see the same possible chasm that Jackson foretells.  I’m looking for ways to climb out.  I don’t see myself arguing with Jackson; rather, I see myself attempting to answer her challenge.”   Before reading Rheingold, I think I might have “seen myself arguing with Jackson,” but now, I too want to rise to meet her challenge.

Rheingold again:

I conclude that teaching people how to practice more mindful, mediated communication seems like the most feasible remedy…. I’m with Jackson; self-control along with the skillful use of attention, participation, crap-detection, and network awareness through social media ought to be taught to future netizens at early as possible.

But Rheingold doesn’t just end it on this note.  He returns to remind us that sometimes we should delight in distraction and diversion; sometimes we will learn the most if we let ourselves ramble and roam the range of the far-reaching internet, tripping link to link encountering what emerges and enjoying  the serendipity of unexpected discovery.    We need to be intentional: what is my goal for this session, this time-frame, and how can I best achieve it?

The war on distraction can go too far for your own good– Distraction is a real issue, but dwelling exclusively on its dark side can be a form of selective inattention.   The meaning of unproductive, like distraction, requires both context and a firm idea of one’s goals.

If your aim is to produce a certain amount of external output, as opposed to the more internal production of learning), then the invitations to serendipity, play, and digression that digital media offer are obstacles and dangers.   If your aspiration is to learn, help build community, and explore, then the issue gets more complicated.

Knowing that among our greatest challenges in the new age of overly abundant information is the problem of properly accessing and evaluating it, Rheingold won’t settle for bland and traditional wording like critical thinking: his preferred term is the earthier “Crap detection.”   I would love to think that our young people, digital natives as they are, are somehow naturally proficient searchers and sorters of  online information, but the evidence is clear: they are not.  (Nor are we, we digital immigrants: our skills have to improve just as much as our students, especially so that we can better model for and teach our students.)

Here is offered a wide variety of techniques and tools to improve your search skills and your crap-detection.  Triangulate information, seeking three independent sources of confirmation.     Use and Snopes, and use tools for determining a site’s author and traffic such as   Consider for each event: what is the importance of having the facts just right, and then align your research accordingly.   On Google, “write the answer you want to get” when formulating search inquiries.    Add “critique” or “criticism” to your search subject to get contrary opinions.   Rheingold also has a high school curriculum for crap detection which deserves consideration for integration possibilities at every high school.

Like J.S. Brown in A New Culture of Learning, Rheingold sings the network electric, and offers several chapters of close examination of the power online networks provide their users and advice on developing and shaping a network.   There is a lot here, more than I can recapitulate in this post, but it very useful and very comprehensive.  I enjoyed his suggestions for joining virtual communities, beginning with “pay attention before you join in.”  This spoke to me: I have always been a very quiet, sometimes silent observer when first joining a new group, studying it closely and taking cues before I jump in.  Sometimes I have been praised and appreciated for this; in one recent experience I was knocked, pretty severely, for it, but I still think Rheingold is right: observe before you jump in.    Next steps include assuming good will, jump in where you can add value, and reciprocate when some does you a favor.  I love his message about the value of “paying it forward;” network environments make it that much more likely that a favor disbursed today will be returned tomorrow.

There is also great insight into how to add value as in networks: one key technique is to be a “bridge.”  Seek to serve as a connecting link from one network to another, and  you will add greater value.  I think for myself I have been seeking to do this, without the consciousness Rheingold has raised for me, of situating myself at the crossroads of the 21st century learning networks and those of independent schools.  I am not sure I am being especially effective, but I am taking the advice here to continue to strive to serve this important intersection.

A great book does many things: it is interesting and enjoyable to read; it informs and gives you practical, applicable tactics and strategies to improve your skills; it causes you to view and understand concepts and principles in new and different ways.   Rheingold’s book did all these things for me.  In regards tho the third and broadest of these things,  it has  helped me to rethink the critical issues of the importance of attention in the new paradigm, and it has expanded dramatically  the way I think about and employ the concept of digital citizenship.   Whether you are a veteran or brand new to the exciting Web 2.0 world of participation and networking, Net Smart is very much worth a careful, thorough read.