This is the second in a short series of posts on a great new book by Howard Rheingold: “Net Smart”. Last week I recommended that you find time to read this fascinating volume yourself (see link below) but promised to whet your appetite in the meantime by looking at its five main themes; the first of which is how to be mindful online.


Pay Attention

As I said last week, one of the great attractions of “Net Smart” for me is that Rheingold is not dogmatic – he is a great fan of the online world without being blind to its pitfalls.

In the section of his book on attention, Rheingold assembles the evidence for and against the way many of use choose to multi-task online and in real life.

He reviews recent neuro-science to explain how we focus our attention with an interesting detour on the reason that so many people are dyslexic is that reading is not hard-wired into human brains.

Along the way, he cites the now famous Daniel Simons basketball awareness test. If you don’t know it, watch the clip below and try to keep track of the number of  times the players wearing white pass the ball:


The downside

Rheingold agrees that media-triggered distraction (such as repeatedly breaking off from work or real-life to check emails or Twitter feeds) can be:

  • Unproductive for the goal-oriented
  • Unhealthy for everybody
  • Fatal for a growing number
  • Addictive for some
  • An invitation to bad parenting (see “Alone Together” by Sherry Turkle about parents being too focused on their smartphones to talk or simply be with their kids – link below)
  • Socially alienating
  • A cause for a dangerous loss of solitude
Worrying, he also pays careful attention to the research says that our brains will quickly adapt in ways which will make it hard for us to maintain focus and attention on any deeper level.

 The upside

However, Rheingold also recalls that very similar scaremongering  followed the introduction of widespread literacy – Socrates thought it would erode our memories and powers of independent thought, the printing press and the telephone.

He doesn’t want us to lose out on our new-found access to such an unprecedented range and variety of information nor the chance to make serendipitous and life-changing discoveries merely by clicking on a hyperlink:

The resolution

The focus of the chapter is to try to teach us the fundamental online skill of :

“dealing with distraction without filtering out opportunity”.

Rheingold’s solutions is for us all to develop a mindful attitude to the online world, where we are aware of our goals and intentions and develop an awareness of when these are being met and when we are becoming too distracted or starting to engage in compulsive checking of emails etc.

He sets out a range of helpful strategies which deserve to be read in full rather than summarised here but include:

  1. Attention to your breathing as a way of getting into a habit of minduflness
  2. Setting daily goals.
  3. Having times and places where you are disconnected.


So it’s time for me to log off. Next week’s post will focus on Rheingold’s most enjoyable subjects – “How to find what you need to know online and how to decide if it’s true”, or to give it it’s more usual name:

“Crap Detection”


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