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Maybe that Facebook screen is a cry for help

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By Joshua Rothman
May 22, 2011

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It looks, at first glance, like a heartening sight: rows of college students sitting in lecture, assiduously taking notes on their laptops. Walk to the back, however, and you’ll discover that half of them are using Facebook or e-mail. It has become a widespread worry among professors: College students have less time for learning because they’re enraptured by digital life.

But those students, it turns out, aren’t necessarily happy about it. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, four media scholars — David Levy, Daryl Nardick, Jeanine Turner, and Leanne McWatters — say that college students, far from being slavishly in love with their cellphones, laptops, and Facebook feeds, are concerned about their addiction to technology, and want to talk about it. After surveying more than 300 students at six colleges, they report that students actually have “significant concerns” about the role of technology in their lives. Students love their iPhones and Tumblrs — but, “when asked about those technologies, many appear to be more self-aware, reflective, and articulate about their concerns and confusions than they are generally given credit for being.”

The researchers argue, in fact, that professors are missing a big opportunity: Digital distraction is a teachable moment, and professors, rather than simply railing against it, ought to teach their students how to think about, and ultimately change, their digital behavior. Digital life should be a subject for study — something students approach self-consciously and intellectually.

No doubt that’s true. If students are really unhappy with their digital addictions, though, there are simpler solutions. Here’s a trick I use when I lecture: Walk to the back of the room and unplug the wireless router.

Somerville’s mystery posterer revealed If you live in Somerville, you may have noticed that someone’s been posting helpful infographic maps, displaying data about crime or income, on telephone poles in your neighborhood. Good magazine has unmasked the man behind the maps: His name is Tim Devin, a local artist and publisher.

Devin has posted two kinds of maps so far, one about crime and one about money, as well as a few surveys and poems. The goal is to prompt an imaginative type of community engagement.

“Lots of demographic maps are out there, but they’re mostly for planners and academics,” Devin explains. “I wanted regular people like me and my neighbors to see them....Maybe if people realize there is a sense of community, they’ll try to join in.”

Fail your way to success According to Benjamin Franklin, the secret to success is hard work: “Plough deep,” he suggested, “while sluggards sleep.” That’s a helpful axiom for simple endeavors, but it’s near-useless for complicated ones. It’s not laziness that prevents us from crash-proofing our financial markets or stopping global climate change — it’s their sheer, mind-numbing complexity.

In “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure,” Tim Harford, a British economist, asks: How do complex problems actually get solved? Harford starts by pointing out that the world is more complicated now than at any time in history. Modern societies rely on intricate technologies; organizations and governments are increasingly unmanageable. Harford looks at a variety of typically modern complex problems, from counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq to the evaluation of international aid programs.

His essential insight is that, in solving complex problems with no obvious solutions, the evidence generated by failure is just as, if not more, valuable than the evidence generated by success. We normally think of success and failure as opposites; in fact, though, they’re entwined. That’s because no one person or single plan can possibly get things right from the beginning. Instead, you have to develop as many plans as possible, and try them all out in a rigorous way. Only after you’ve figured out what doesn’t work — by really trying and really failing — can you isolate what will.

Many international aid programs, for example, receive expert endorsements, but then turn out not to work, for reasons no one could have predicted. Since we know, Harford argues, that many sensible-sounding programs will fail, we ought to enact many programs simultaneously in randomized trials. Accepting that many ideas will fail right from the beginning, of course, requires a difficult psychological adjustment: You have to be comfortable with failure, rather than ashamed of it.

Ultimately Harford, like “Black Swan” author Nassim Taleb (or, for that matter, like Leo Tolstoy), thinks that the world is bigger than any individual mind. We ought to be very skeptical of anyone who claims to know how to solve a complex problem; we should accept the fact that real problem-solving requires huge teams of humble people willing to try things out and, if need be, to fail. Failure, in fact, is an untapped resource. To tap into it, managers need to encourage trial and error — and to make failure, when it inevitably happens, survivable.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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