The Loss of Solitary Exploration

“This experimental feature helps voters make more informed choices, and levels the playing field for candidates to share ideas and positions on issues they may not have had a chance to address during the debate. By publishing long-form text, photos and videos throughout the debate, campaigns can now give extended responses, answer questions they didn’t get a chance to on stage, and rebut their opponents. As soon as the first debate begins at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, search “Fox News debate” to find campaign responses.”

Source: Official Google Blog: New ways to stay informed about presidential politics

Wait, you mean the debates are scripted?

But seriously, this is interesting… as I’ve been watching the X Files revival this week (also on Fox™), I’ve been thinking more intentionally about the how’s and why’s we consume media in 2016 compared to, say, twenty years ago in 1996 when I was a nerdy teenager madly in love with the show. The X Files were something that I watched, recorded, and watched again most every week in order to parse out a new piece of the show’s ongoing mythology. It was a solitary, but incredibly beneficial, experience. I did the same with Beatles lyrics and Herman Hesse novels around the same time.

However, with this new iteration of the X Files, I’ve noticed that I’m watching my iPad as much as I’m watching the show. The #xfiles stream on Twitter has been an integral part of my viewing of the show. I only realized how much last night as I was watching the stream and realized that I had missed a key plot point that was subtle (I probably would’ve missed it if I had been watching the show intently rather than partitioning my attention, but still…) but was important. A tweet clued me in and I immediately “got it.” Would I have had that experience had I not been following the conversation on Twitter? Maybe. Hopefully in a second or third viewing I would. But I find myself not watching or reading things a second or third time these days because OMG JESSICA JONES is on Netflix and I have to catch up before diving into Making a Murderer before the next season of House of Cards!

Following the X Files last night was the last Democratic Presidential Debate before the Iowa Caucus next week. Again, I spent as much (if not more) time arguing with my friend Thomas Whitley about the merits of Bernie Sanders on Twitter as I did actually watching the debate. I’ve been watching presidential debates since … well, about 1996 when Clinton was at his high point and masterfully debated against a credible threat from Bob Dole. Throughout college and graduate school, I loved watching debates and can remember highlights from ’00 and ’04 as if they were fresh memories. Will I remember the ’16 debates (as remarkable as they are given the current political climate) as fondly or well? I’m not sure. I certainly don’t remember much about the ’12 debates when I was also using Twitter as a side show to further my “engagement with the conversation,” but there are also the variables of age and my diminished attention span to consider.

Perhaps that’s the fulcrum of whatever point I’m trying to make… as we grow older (I’m 37 now), do we intentionally seek out these side reels in order to persuade our minds that things like the X Files or a sporting event or a presidential debate are *really* important? Or do we seek these out as ways to validate our own confirmation bias about a particular football team or candidate (or mythology)?

I’ve noticed that when I read books on my Kindle, I frequently come across highlights that other Kindle users have made. It’s a neat feature for readers, as you get clued into what other readers have considered important or highlight-worthy in the same book you’re reading. It’s a feature that can be turned off, but I haven’t done that yet. I wonder what 17 year old Sam in 1996 would have said or thought of that feature when I was pouring through Siddhartha for the 3rd time? Would I have even made it through that many readings, since I would have had the highlights from other readers?

When I was a middle school teacher (I use that past tense slightly as I’m not sure one can ever divorce oneself from such an absurd calling / profession), I was always an enthusiastic promoter of the “back channel” in the classroom. The back channel, to me, was a space for students to openly raise questions and explore avenues during the course of a class experience. I experimented with various ways to bring about a healthy back channel, but I’m not sure if I ever did (I saw good benefits, but there was no way to quantifiably measure those outside of summative assessments which I also didn’t particularly enjoy). I wonder if I would encourage that back channel presence now, being a little older and with the benefit of hindsight? Did it detract from the class experience in the same way that my watching both the X Files on TV and #xfiles on a screen detracts from my solitary exploration of thoughts and ideas? Or were there tangible benefits in the same way that I realized a plot point I would have probably missed last night?

I miss the days of having to watch a well worn VHS tape recording of a Star Trek TNG episode or The Empire Strikes Back or a Presidential Debate in order to make sure I didn’t miss anything, rather than just googling “last night’s X Files” to find the right subreddit to lose a few hours in. That’s unfair nostalgia (I’m getting old, remember). These tools, these social spaces, we’ve created are doing amazing things for our culture and society. I appreciate how Twitter and Reddit enrich my life.

But sometimes, I want to read Siddhartha again because as a pernicious 17 year old I hated the very idea and existence of Cliff Notes. Now, I can’t seem to experience anything without a cliff note version via 140 characters or a Virgil in the form of a polished Redditor.

Author: Sam Harrelson

Marketing and Technology Strategist at https://samharrelson.com ; Podcast at https://thinking.fm

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