A telling passage midway through Now You See It, Duke professor Cathy Davidson's new book about "how the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn" (per the subtitle), shows how far she's departed from her age group's skepticism concerning the wired life.
She writes about a parent driving kids to school who noticed that "as they approached the school building, the kids madly IM'd away to their friends, all the while chatting energetically with one another.
"Then they arrived at school, and they lined up, went silent, and switched off—not just their electronic devices but their own personalities: They became less animated versions of themselves. They went into lockdown mode—until recess. Out on the playground, the chatting and IM-ing began again."
This anecdote appears on page 194, and if you hadn't read the previous 193 pages, you'd think Davidson, by implicitly suggesting that schoolchildren be allowed to text one another willy-nilly throughout the day, was off her rocker (some readers, after 195 pages, still might). How could they concentrate, and the teacher keep order, in the face of electronic distraction?
By looking at the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the modern school and workplace, however, Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies, makes a persuasive case for the transformation cited in her subtitle, one that builds on current research on attentiveness and takes better advantage of the tools that modern technology has made available. "If institutions of school and work fight changes that people have happily adopted in their lives," she writes, "then perhaps the source of distraction in the workplace isn't technology—perhaps it is the outmoded practices required by our schools and workplaces."
On the subject of distraction, and the digital era's widely presumed shrinking attention span, she's especially keen. She cites the work of neuroscientists to back her claim that multitasking isn't a modern malady brought on by sensory overload, but an accurate description of how the brain works: "The mind always wanders off task because the mind's task is to wander." With the Internet, we've finally invented a decentralized, open-ended medium that operates in tune with our inborn attention patterns, but as much as it's already changed our lives, our cultural software still isn't keeping pace with the hardware.
Regarding the workplace, Davidson shares a number of possible enhancements to Cubicle Land, like the synchronous chat rooms that IBM employees use to exchange ideas privately during meetings or teleconferences; but it's when she wades into the perennial debate on how to fix our schools that she's most enlightening. She traces today's standard model—hierarchical, highly segmented and regimented—to the early 20th century, when industry called for a punctual, orderly, narrowly focused workforce to fill its offices and factories. She plumbs the origins of standardized tests, invented in 1914 by educator Frederick J. Kelly, and letter grades, first adopted at Mount Holyoke College in 1897. These systems of uniformity and ranking serve researchers and gatekeepers more than teachers and students, she argues.
Davidson shares most teachers' abhorrence for the standardized yearly exams that measure student progress, with all the rote teaching-to-the-test exercises they entail. The classrooms she singles out for praise are relatively unstructured, goal-based and individually adaptable, yet emphasizing collaboration. One fascinating example is a New York City non-charter public school called Quest 2 Learn, which puts kids' seemingly limitless love of games (video or otherwise) to pedagogical purpose. The school's founder explains that kids learn "risk taking, meaning creation, nonlinear navigation, problem solving, an understanding of rule structures and an acknowledgment of agency within that structure." And they play a lot of video games. The school opened just two years ago, so whether its innovative approach will be copied or abandoned remains to be seen.
If Now You See It occasionally sounds like a personal jeremiad against conventional schooling, it's partly because of stings Davidson suffered in her own childhood: As she relates, she was an underachiever in grade school, and her severe dyslexia wasn't diagnosed until age 27. By that time she had risen through the ranks of academia to become a college professor, but she still hasn't forgotten her youthful angst, reflected in her distaste for one-size-fits-all schooling and, in Now You See It, a few conspicuous lapses into self-congratulation for her talents and career successes.
Davidson's capacious intellect allows her to bring myriad examples and arguments to her thesis, but sometimes Now You See It feels crammed cover-to-cover with lightly explored points. As well, its relentless optimism for the high-tech present and future sometimes runs away with itself—about the only drawback to the modern technoverse she mentions (briefly) is the rise of the always-on, 80-hour workweek that comes with the disappearing line between work and leisure. And she manages to turn even that drawback into a positive.
In the end, the upbeat tone turns out to be the book's main strength: It's a powerful corrective to all the familiar hand-wringing and doom-saying about a digital dystopia. It's impossible to absorb her near-religious enthusiasm without wondering how much of our discomfort about the wired future is really just misplaced nostalgia, or simple fear of change.