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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Whether you publish a column or a book, you never know what is going to resonate, or with whom it will hit home.
Still, two of the last people I ever would have guessed recently seized upon what has become the most-talked about chapter in Rick Pitino's latest book, The One-Day Contract, one that deals with the danger of being too distracted by technology.
In the days after publication of the book, Pitino did more than 50 interviews around the country, and nearly all of them took the ball and ran with the chapter entitled "The Trap of Technology."
Pitino wasn't looking to become the champion of some kind of Luddite sect that wants an end to all social media or web communication. And, in fact, even the mere suggestion that something is amiss made him a bit of a curiosity.
The danger is being viewed as old and out of touch. But I must admit to having been convinced by much of the evidence I saw when researching that portion of the book. One study we cited estimated that Americans are interrupted once every 10 1/2 minutes by email, instant message, text message or social media, and once interrupted, take an average of 23 minutes to get back on task.
I believe it. At Saturday's University of Louisville basketball exhibition, I did my usual thing. I opened my laptop at press row, and began to Tweet once in a while during play. It wasn't a very eventful game, and I probably only posted twice during the entire first half, yet I found that I was constantly looking at the screen, and not at the game. When I realized I was checking other things, Facebook, Twitter, the scores of college football games, I shut the laptop and made myself do something novel in the second half -- actually watch what was happening on the court. It did lead to a surreal moment, when on the scoreboard I was invited to text "555111" to "Pitino" where, right on my phone, I could read the Introduction to a book that would tell me to spend less time on my phone!
Web distraction is an occupational hazard now, of course. We're expected to be engaged with an audience even while a game is going on. There are people, I know, who rarely watch me on television, and who may read me only occasionally, but know me or my work only by what I post on Twitter. I had a guy a couple of weeks ago say that he never clicked on links to story, he just tries to get the gist from the headlines people post. On Facebook, I know there are people weighing in with an opinion based not on what I write, but on what the headline on Facebook says the story is about.
The medium changes the message. My columns have gone from being read in the newspaper to on a computer or desktop screen to, now, receiving more views on phones and other mobile devices than anything else. Each change, almost imperceptibly but no less surely, has brought changes in how I write.
Not long ago, only the cable news networks were at the mercy of a 24-hour news cycle. Now, courtesy of web pages and news apps, we all are. It's an Internet cycle. For maximum growth, you want to post at 8 in the morning, so that people will have something to look at when they get up, or when they first get to work. You want to have a cycle of stories around noon, and then maybe again at mid-afternoon. You also should hit with something around 5, or right before people leave work.
Here's a secret that's not so secret. There isn't always news. What you will see is "content." Something, anything to draw the eye. If you don't have your own news, you link to the work of others, or in the case of some outlets, just steal it, with only a passing nod to where it came from.
I wrote about the danger in all this a few weeks back in a column discussing the issue of smartphones in the classroom. Every change in technology or information delivery comes with a corresponding change in the way we think. It was in the case of the printing press, in radio, in television. But there is no question -- the science backs it up -- that the Internet is changing the way our brains are wired.
"The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it," Nicholas Carr wrote in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. "We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we're distracted by the medium's rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli." He quoted an interview with neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who said that multitasking online is, "training our brains to pay attention to the crap."
Google counts on it, cashes in on the bet that we will go looking for one thing, then get distracted by something similar, and follow threads that have little or nothing to do with what brought us there.
But that's only part of the story. This technology not only is changing the way we think, but increasingly, researchers believe that it is changing the actual make-up of our brains.
A study in China performed MRI tests on students who spent 10 hours a day online versus those who spent 2 hours or less. The heavy users actually had less gray matter, the fundamental building block of higher order processing -- thinking, memory, speech. You know what else reduces gray matter? Smoking. Diseases like bipolar disorder, Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis and others. Child abuse. It's more than just changing the way we think. It is changing our ability to think.
Everything in this state, of course, seems to build on opposites of red and blue. Kentucky coach John Calipari recently weighed in on Pitino's way of thinking (without mentioning him), saying that social media are a fact of life, and that he wants to train his players to use them effectively. There's a value in that. It's a responsibility of educators, in fact. But how long does that take? How long, really, does it take to deliver the message that you shouldn't post too much personal information online, or obscenity, or anything that is going to cause you problems with a future employer? That's not a trail-and-error or learn-from-experience message. Once you make a mistake, it's made, it's out there.
At the London Olympics, Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou put a politically inflammatory post on Twitter and was sent home before the games even began. Boom. Years of training and work, gone in 140 characters.
Pitino said his players recently estimated that they spend four hours a day on social media, which he interpreted as under-reporting the actual time spent online by half.
"I asked them, how much more effective would you be if you took even half that time you spent online and applied it to your basketball game, or to your schoolwork?" Pitino said. "My point is not to knock all this stuff, but just to ask people, what are you really accomplishing? I honestly believe that people who can manage to spend less time online and more time actually working and getting things done are going to have a major edge on those who don't. That's my main point."
Having worked with young people for 30 years, Pitino noted that it's nothing for one of his players to text, "Love u coach," something he never would have said to any of his coaches. Yet, if they're sitting across the table from him, they can't communicate, don't want to make eye contact, are uncomfortable in the setting. They don't even like speaking on the phone.
"They're fine texting you," he said, "but call them, and they won't pick up. You have to text them, then get them on the phone. There are important skills that are being lost."
One of his points is that you wouldn't want one of your favorite players Tweeting during a game. Still, many people do the equivalent themselves whether it's through Twitter or social media use at work.
"For you, as a person in the media, it's essential," Pitino told me. "But for most people, what good is going to come of it? You don't convince anyone of anything, and you waste time you could be using on something more important."
I wouldn't have pegged, when the book was published, that this chapter would be one that became a national conversation piece. But it's interesting that it has.
Eric Crawford, WDRB Sports Journalist, weighs in with non-sports opinions on Sundays. He collaborated with Rick Pitino on the book mentioned here, The One-Day Contract, which can be purchased here or at bookstores around the country.
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