If learning is the key to human flourishing, then the age of electronics ought to be our long-awaited golden age of social renewal; for when in history have we had so much knowledge right at our fingertips?
You’re not buying that, I can tell. Here I am kicking off a multi-part series on learning in the electronic age, and I’ve lost you already in the first sentence.
Never mind that human flourishing encompasses far, far more than intellectual advancement (though the deepest and most lasting spiritual awakenings in history have been accompanied by some of Christianity’s wisest, most thoughtful writings). We all know that the Internet has not turned out to be our golden key to knowledge and wisdom. Information, yes, the Internet has that in abundance. This really is an unprecedented golden age for data on just about everything. There are facts galore, in every description. New facts, old facts, true facts, false facts. (Please don’t ping me on that contradiction; I’m aware of it.) Does anybody remember having to (gasp!) go to the library to look something up?
Over the next several weeks I plan to post a series on what I’ve learned about being a student in this electronic age: What’s helpful? What’s not? What are some of the best resources to call on? What are the some of the most serious obstacles?
I won’t try to make this anything like a grand unifying perspective. I’m 55 years old, I use a Macintosh computer, and I have a couple other electronic gizmos (a wifi-only Nook ebook reader and an iPhone) that I’ll bring into the discussion. I’ll be talking about various software options, and I’ll have reviews of two of the top Bible study software packages. That’s what I’m qualified to speak on. I won’t be able to talk about the Kindle or the iPad (not unless someone wants to send me one :)). Most importantly, I won’t be able to convey the perspective of today’s “digital natives,” those who were born a couple decades later than me; though I’m not exactly a stranger to these cyber-neighborhoods myself.
Focus Or Not
I got my Nook as a birthday gift about six weeks ago. I had a Sony reader before that, one that had also been gifted to me, which my daughter is using now. A friend saw me using my Nook, and he asked me why I hadn’t gone for an iPad or one of the other Internet-enabled readers. I said, “That’s exactly the point.” He looked puzzled, so I explained it to him, as I’ll do again now.
The Internet is the best and the worst thing that ever could have happened to serious study. The really good thing about it is all that you can find there, and all thjat you can do. The really bad thing about it is all that you can find there, and all that you can do. I’m not even talking about the seamy side of the web (that’s bad in ways that extend far beyond our topic today). I’m talking about good material that becomes distracting.
My favorite two features in my Nook are that it holds a lot of books, and that it can’t surf the web or check email. I thank God that it can’t surf the web or check email! Would you believe that right in the middle of writing the paragraph before this one, I checked my email, found out that there’s an update available for one of my Mac’s applications, went to the web, and started the download process? Do you know how dumb I feel, known that I did that right while I was writing about distractions on the Internet?
The Web is a fascinating playground, sometimes too fascinating. I’m expecting two or three very important email replies sometime today or tomorrow. I thought I’d take a quick peek over there and see if one of them had come in. What I found instead in my inbox was a nice bright shiny object: an application upgrade with some cool new features. It’s not the application I’m using to write this, and it’s not one I’m planning to use in the next few days, but the upgrade was bright and shiny and distracting nonetheless.
Maybe you’re not subject to that kind of distraction; maybe you’re more naturally disciplined and focused than I am. But for me, distraction is by far the top issue to overcome as an electronic student.
Oops—I just checked again for new emails. I really am eager to get those replies I mentioned earlier. This is not just a matter of shifting attention. The eagerness itself, the sense that something interesting might pop up right here at any second and I had better be on the lookout for it! has me slightly on edge. It’s not conducive to good thinking or good study.
Freedom, Blessed Freedom
I have two defenses against this. One is the shareware application Freedom. Its developer (who has not paid me to say any of this) describes Freedom as
a simple productivity application that locks you away from the internet on Mac or Windows computers for up to eight hours at a time. Freedom frees you from distractions, allowing you time to write, analyze, code, or create. At the end of your offline period, Freedom allows you back on the internet.
I describe it as my sigh-of-relief, now-I-can-think software program. I run it frequently through the day, typically for 45 minutes at a time. I can’t get on the Internet while it’s running, and thank God for that! When it lets me back on the network, typically I check my email, respond to blog comments, and so on; and then I’ll start Freedom back up again. I don’t always do that: some days, for example, I stay connected and engaged in comment discussions for a large part of the day. But if I have serious reading or original writing to do, I do far better at it with the Internet out of reach.
For me, this is essential background for everything else that has to do with being an electronic student.
I’ll come back to this series in a few days, when I’ll share some surprising ways you may never have known to use an e-book reader for serious study. There will be much more to come after that.
This series is also running at First Things: Evangel.