Give me some Slack…

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Give me some Slack! Well…maybe not. 

In a podcast I listened to recently, Ezra Klein interviews Cal Newport, and the ideas they discuss about the evolving nature of work and communication are fascinating. Newport, who is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown, traces an historical arc of workplace communication from email through Slack, and in the process introduces a core idea of the “hyperactive hive mind,” — and makes a strong case for rethinking the ways we use digital tools to communicate.

Perhaps it goes without saying that we live in an age of communication overload, and that it is simply a part of life that we must accept and learn to manage. However, Newport makes some powerful observations about the ways we have come to use chat messaging apps and tools like Slack. While these tools have made the sharing of ideas easier (a blessing and a curse), they have also served to promote an ad hoc, unstructured and unscheduled form of communication that can become a constant distraction. The “just figure it out on the fly” mode of exchange, supported by back-and-forth messaging, has increasingly come to structure work…and this is what Newport calls the hyperactive hive mind. And while this may give the appearance of productivity, there is strong evidence to suggest that this constant network switching is very ineffective and at odds with the way our brains work.

While the conversation focuses on work environments, it also led me to think about the ways in which these digital tools and forms of communication are used in educational settings. Is it helpful in meeting students where they are if we adopt chat tools for course based communication? Do tools like Slack have embedded expectations for communication that primarily enhance or detract from learning? If we are thinking about the right way for brains to communicate, how do we decide what digital tools might support that?

Klein and Newport help us to question current practices, and provide some wonderful insights about ways we might reimagine communication in a digital age, sure worth a listen…

Jeff Nugent


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