All posts by vicvan

On Rheingold’s attention & crap detection

Rheingold’s Net Smart is a work that strives to encourage people to become more aware of their digital media use. Throughout the introduction he gives a brief overview of some of the ways in which the Internet has changed even the simplest situations in our daily life. In each chapter he goes more into detail about the various aspects of this influence, what the potential pitfalls are and how we can best deal with them.


Some of the examples of daily life situations he brings up sounded very familiar to me, like the email overflow that professors have to deal with (as a student, I don’t tend to have this problem, but I don’t recall a lot of my teachers at university that haven’t brought up this topic at least once). Many other things I have experienced however, such as messaging at the dinner table, having to finish writing an email before saying hi to someone, etc. In that sense the book, in combination with its clear writing style, does a very good job to appeal to both academics and non-academics.


The introduction goes further on his experience with digital media and the Internet and how his thoughts have shaped over the many years. I found it most interesting because it is a sort of mini summary on how the Internet and computers of today came to be. There is however 1 topic he brings up, which I feel I heavily disagree with or at least want to give some more nuance to. His statement that teenagers are by no means passive media consumers is almost impossible to deny. But being an active media user doesn’t mean that you are therefore ‘good’ at it. Privacy for example, I feel, is one of the many things that teenagers don’t think about enough when they get on social media or the Internet in general (I know of enough examples in my family alone).


The first chapter talks more deeply about the aspect of attention in relation to handling digital media in a smart way. After a brief introduction on how attention & distraction functions in the human brain, he goes on to how we can learn control our focus. The little breathing trick he proposes is one that I will definitely try in the near future. Reading this chapter however reminded me a lot of Meyrowitz’s work on electronic media who argues that the new forms of attention, intelligence and knowledge may just be a next step in the evolution of these concepts. Rheingold in a sense, acknowledges that splitting up your attention is not necessarily bad, but that we need to know when to focus on 1 thing and when to divert our attention to multiple things. So he is somewhere in the middle between the two views. Both are right in some sense. Personally I don’t see the harm in multitasking, as long as we manage to control our focus on a particular thing when we need to. You wouldn’t want your friend to multitask when he’s driving you somewhere for example.


The next chapter involves the need for a crap detection mechanism in your mind when surfing the Internet. How can we recognize the information we need in the sea of useless messages, links, images, etc.? Rheingold continues throughout the whole chapter to list various websites and online tools where one can check the validity of the things he/she finds on the Internet. I’ll be honest, I did not know about a lot of them, but perhaps I will check them out. Up until now I’ve never really bothered to do a background check when reading something online. Mostly because I tend to take things with a large grain of salt when it doesn’t come from a source that I’m familiar with. Be that as it may, I won’t be surprised if in the past I’ve read false information and taken it for true. Triangulating a story, as Rheingold calls it, definitely seems like a good way to check if it holds any credit. Then again, this could also prove problematic somehow. “The devil is in the details” as they say. Three different newspapers may report the same story but that doesn’t mean that they are therefore all 3 correct in their entirety. Never the less he does a great job in making people aware that we shouldn’t blindly trust anything we read on the internet, but to approach it with caution first.


Overall I am curious what the next chapters will bring. The first 100 pages were a blast to read and have challenged me to rethink some of my habits, even as an MA student in digital culture and media studies.



With Kind Regards,