Technology Gets in the Zone

Technology Gets in the Zone

Our equipment changes how we process, how we remember, and what we produce.  As Nietzsche said, “our equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”  The trick is to hack the advantages of each, and be ready to shift equipment as one type of equipment or interface is better for the purpose.  And even if we don’t know exactly what we want from each form of equipment, using diverse equipment will diversify the input that goes into our analysis, memory, and output.   In short diversify equipment, expand learning.

If our equipment changes how we analyze, input, and produce information, can we use this to our advantage?  This is exactly how Benjamin Franklin described the way he taught himself how to write.  He took an essay whose style he wanted to emulate, made a sort of an outline.  He gave himself time to forget the original, then fleshed the outline out again.  He also switched between essay and poetry and back.  Could this approach take advantage of different equipment we commonly use to learn and share information?  I could envision giving an assignment in which students are asked to make a PowerPoint presentation of a paper, including all important figures.  Then they could be asked to write a scientific paper from that PowerPoint (it would be tricky to reliably take away access to the original paper for the second part of the assignment, but I’m sure something could be done).  I can imagine paper notes to be used during the lecture-format portion of a class, and laptops to be used for in-class review for example to generate a list of questions about the material in a google document.

Every technology comes with pushback.  They are tools with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.  So what are our goals, the things we want to increase through technology and avoid disrupting?  How do we optimize?

I see three main goals of technology and format which both aid learning and enable learning to be better utilized:

  • To enable communication
  • To enhance productivity, either individually or as a group
  • To complement individual faculty – augmenting skills and opening access to enjoyable challenges

For each of these goals our use of our use of technology, equipment, and medium will affect them.

The point is to optimize the positive effects and utilize a diversity of effects, knowing that there is no form of learning that does not use a medium of some sort.   Does this piece of equipment in this context put you into communication or out of it?  Does more get accomplished in the end because of it – either individually or as a group?  Does it facilitate challenge and interest, or is it leading to worry, to apathy, and distraction?  Is a tool that draws you to be constantly “thinking about the task [you] weren’t doing,” or helps you is it something that helps you do the thing you were doing better?


A number of people have talked about how Plato critiqued writing as a new-fangled technology that would inhibit real learning and thinking.  This is often in the context of making a point like “well we know writing is a critical tool for our individual and societal development, so now we know his critique of this new technology was invalid – a fear of something new.”  I’m not sure this argument holds.  We do know that writing is critical.  But listen to his explanation:

Writing… has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.

Although in other places his criticism is harsher, the point he makes here is that writing can’t replace interpersonal communication, and has weaknesses in that it cannot replicate the accountability and inspiration of interpersonal communication.  To this extant I think his comment is very valid and many modern technologies address exactly this weakness of writing, making written word more interactive.

I’m sure Plato would be happy to know we have not abandoned spoken conversations as a format in education.  Now we chose among many formats and technologies as we need to.  For example, in order to become a PhD candidate, I had to pass an oral exam.   The biggest exam and most formal exam I will probably have to take in my education is actually very Socratic in its structure.  We pick the format we want to use for the purpose at hand.  (Still, I am glad he did not live to see the invention of the scantron….)


Technology is a huge enabler of productivity.  But this is an area that is rife with paradoxes and optimization problems.  As science and technology writer Clive Thompson says we are “social thinkers

and technology that enables communication makes us more able and productive as a whole.  I would argue that productivity (in some form or another) is an almost automatic byproduct efficient communication.  (I don’t argue that this productivity automatically produces something that is necessarily good – effort and wisdom will always be important.)  Technology (whether it’s a bugle, pen and paper, or a super computer) is critical to communication-derived productivity.  I really wish google docs were around when my debate partner and I were writing up case briefs in high school.  I had an online class once in which we each had to post questions to a forum, and we could get credit for answering them as well.  The professor would clarify points we couldn’t.  My lab’s collaborators meet regularly via WebEx, which has options for screen share, document share, and chatting – a Skype for professionals.

When it comes to an individual productivity, the story is more nuanced.  On an individual level, productivity has a lot to do with an ability to focus, not just on topical knowledge, ability, and insight.  Technology certainly effects our focus.  Our technology effects the way we process information as we acquire it, the way we avoid distraction and prioritize information, and how we “get in the zone” really engaging in what we do.  The effect is very individual by person and context.  Sometimes technology streamlines this.  Other times simpler is better.   If I have writer’s block or am trying to jot down a poem without disrupting my flow of thought, you better believe the pen and paper is coming out.

The big productivity risk of technology comes with multitasking.  Since reading about the 2009 study done at Stanford on the disadvantage of multitasking on mental performance, I have been trying to be more conscious about focusing on one thing at a time and not letting myself think or work on something else until it is finished.  What is interesting is that multiprocessors were pulled from a group of people who regularly multi-process via technology.   That said, I found a lot of benefit from tying to make a point to consciously say “this is what I am thinking about for this next minute or so.”  And this helped me while I was doing work on a computer.  I needed the computer to accomplish what I wanted to do.  I also needed to be conscious about how I use it.  I noticed something while I was trying this that goes beyond an increase in productivity.  The increased focus came with clarity and motivation.

Flow – Or being in the zone

If productivity is a sign of equipped social thought, then being “in flow” is a sign of well-quipped individual thought.  Being in flow is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.”   I like to call it being in the zone.  It is essentially the signature of someone who sustainably and intrinsically enjoys what they do.   Flow comes from feeling both challenged and skilled.  It has seven basic features:

  1. Focus, concentration
  2. Ecstasy
  3. Clarity – know what to do
  4. Sense of the challenge being doable, even if hard
  5. Serenity, loss of a sense of self (too focused on something bigger)
  6. Timelessness
  7. Intrinsic motivation

What I noticed when I chose not to multi-process is that a I noticed a number of features of being “in flow” increase in addition to the obvious increase in focus.  Even when I don’t particularly enjoy the things I was doing at that point.  I had more clarity, a sense that I could finish what I was working on, and less of a worry about waiting time or of paying attention to it.  I wouldn’t say that my busywork acquired more ecstasy, but it was more enjoyable.

In other words, we have a significant about of control over how much our work resembles being in flow, even busy work.  We don’t have to reach the frenzied passion of an inspired artist to take advantage of flow by degree as part of the way we are wired as humans.  One of my new goals as a teacher (and as a learner!) is to encourage myself and my students to find as many of these seven features in whatever work we do to whatever extent it is up to us.

Focus.  Skills. And challenge.

And a diversity of technologies to help you do it.


I Cannot Play the Pianoforte
“There was a great emphasis on universal literacy in the early colonial era of the 17th century”

In any effort to promote literacy, there is another question that comes up.  Whose literacy?   Who gets to define it?  As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who first described critical pedagogy said, “Who says that this accent or that this way of thinking is the cultivated one?  If there is one which is cultivated this is because there is one which is not.  Do you see it’s impossible to think of language without thinking of ideology and power?”  Ideology matters when we define literacy.  This hit home for me seeing an extreme example in a recent NPR history article titled “18 Rules of Behavior for young ladies in 1831.”  Charles Varle wrote in 1831 that his list came in part from “the most celebrated books on Ladies education.”   Here are a few: “Consult only your own relations,” “form no friendship with men,” “trust no female acquaintance, i.e, make no confidant of any one,” “Be not too often seen in public,” and “never be afraid of blushing.”  I don’t really think I need to make any commentary of what I think of these “rules.”  (Take a wild guess on that one.)  The open question is would I be considered literate under this system?  I don’t speak Latin or French.  I don’t paint or play “pianoforte.”  I study biology, but I don’t use that much gross anatomy or species identification which would have been the basics in the natural sciences of the day.  And I don’t exactly stay home with no friends either.  Under this ideology would people like me (read women…) be able to prove ourselves?  As Paulo Freire put it, could we “articulate [our] voices and [our] speech in the struggle against injustice”?  I think the answer is, and was, no.  Not really.  Putting it in this oversimplified context helps me tackle it for myself.  What would enable a teacher living under this norm support my voice?   At the heart of critical pedagogy is an idea – give me the power to question this “norm.”  Again to quote Paulo Freire, “No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why?”  The idea is to let people talk and teach who may not be literate by a given standard (like most of us by the 1830s standard), but highly literate in another.  In the case of women in the 1800s, I imagine this began to happen when school became mandatory and more women were hired as teachers in response to the advocacy of Catharine Beecher.

Basically there are two approaches to trying to help people out.  The first to help directly, and the second to ask real and legitimate questions about a person’s priorities and the primary barriers to these.   There are times and places for both of these (For example, I am thinking of the International Justice Mission which works to free modern slaves and prosecute modern human traffickers.  There comes a point where a victim of human trafficking doesn’t need someone to ask them about the barriers to freedom.  Prosecuting a human trafficker is a really good first step.  You can’t stop there, but you do need to start there.)  One group that I think needs a strong support system in the U.S. is ex-prisoners.  I love way the one writing professor, Stephanie Bower at the University of Southern California, lead her class.  Instead of having students get online and research statistics about ex-prisoners, or feed a superiority complex by asking students to write about how they “made a difference” after some three-hour service project, she invited a panel of people recently released from the prison system to come and tell their stories.  I would love to get to sit in on that class.

I can think of times I have tried so hard to do something I forgot to listen.  I’m sure Charles Varle, the man who wrote the “Rules of behavior for young ladies,” thought he was being helpful.  Maybe we shouldn’t to hard on him.  Sometimes we think we are being helpful too.

The numbers say I am racist

How do we recognize when we are flying in autopilot?

Last week I took a version of the Implicit Association Test. The aim of the test is to look at perhaps hidden bias in our own minds by looking at the difference in ability to associate positive terms with or negative terms or positive terms with a given race or identity, in this case not my own. I did quite poorly. I’m not even really sure I want to admit this. How comfortable am I admitting this result with my friends? Is that a conversation I want to have? Would it be hurtful to do so? Or is it only my own ego I would hurt?

So in short the survey was a really a horrible experience. I am grateful for the experience, but to be blunt I found it sickening. Have you ever felt self-conscious around yourself? Have you ever found yourself wondering what you might be thinking? A little tempted to squirm out of your own consciousness, and find some meaningless distraction? Have you ever attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation in your head as though looking for gossip? This week I have found myself questioning myself. I want to know if this is true in my interactions with people. Or at least I want to find out. It’s hard to say if I really want to know.

From the experience, I think there were two kinds of factors playing in on the unconscious mind – the mind on autopilot. The first a bias against another group, and the second a bias toward myself. The first is hard for me to wrap my mind around. The second is easier. What I have never noticed before is how many of my mnemonics are based on some system of ranking, of doling out importance. When I memorize numbers I use tricks like noticing when the digits add to 10, patterns and symmetry, and – conspicuously – a competition between the “good” even numbers and the “bad” odd numbers. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember without ever consciously deciding to do so.

What’s scary is how often I use “likeness to me” as a mnemonic. I’ll use my age, my initials, my favorite color, my “favorite” number, whatever it takes as a tag. And if I am trying to remember an ordered list or associate numbers with terms, I find it easier to remember when the more “me-like” is the greater. For example, potassium is “my” element because it’s abbreviation is “K.” My initial. The concentration of potassium is high inside the cell (I get to be the “insider”), and the Na+/K+-ATPase that maintains this gradient only pumps 2 K+ in for every 3 Na+ out (because I can’t be pushed around like so much sodium…). I use all sorts of mnemonics and the crazier the better. My memory is pretty horrible. Repetition hardly helps. My spelling skills are remedial (if anyone bothered to recognize that there is such a thing). But I don’t think I am off the mark when I say my memorization skills – the conscious ability to memorize what I set out to memorize – are very good. It’s something you practice as a biology major. But I’ve never pieced this together before; good at what cost? Have I trained myself to be quickly and instinctively egocentric?

And then there is the other factor that I have to wrestle with. The idea that with these results there is inherently a bias against. That’s the way this works. What do I do with that? I really like the concept so the hidden brain introduced by Shankar Vedantam. In effect he says that one of the best ways to get back control form the autopilot in my mind is to admit that the autopilot is there. To be aware of it.  That’s what this assassination test did for me.  Kind of like when a real pilot can be tricked into believing they are flying level between two layers of clouds, when if fact the clouds are not level at all.  We need some instrumentation and hard and fast numbers to identify the false horizon.  In the interview with Shankar Vedantam they talked about the idea of which person the autopilot of personal default or the conscious pilot is the “real you.” I really think it depends of which one is flying the plane. David Foster Wallace: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Whether his long bout with depression and eventual suicide gives him credibility here or the lack of it could be taken either way; I fundamentally agree with this quote. So I will take it as a good thing: not getting a poor score on the Implicit Assessment Test, but having taken it and gotten a score at all. And I hope that this exercise will build into my arsenal and allow me to help facilitate similar experiences in the classroom and continually in my own life.