Ms. Karin Wittenborg, University Librarian
Convocation Address – University of Virginia
October 24, 2008
Thank you, President Casteen.
It is a great honor to address such a distinguished audience of students, families, colleagues, and friends.
Before I get started, I want to thank three students in the audience today who recently gave me good advice. They told me my topic was relevant, advised me to say something personal to catch your attention, and – most important -- to keep it short. So, let’s see how it goes.
President Casteen’s kind introduction didn’t mention the detours on the way to my current position. The greatest gift my parents gave me was a good education, but they were not too enthusiastic about some of my detours, including trying my hand at bartending and waitressing.
In restaurants, I learned a lot about customer service … and I learned to avoid establishments that involved flaming drinks or dishes. I had an unfortunate tendency to light myself on fire.
Who knew that restaurant experience would turn out to be fabulous preparation for being a University Librarian? In any case, I hope all of your detours will be interesting and fruitful.
Today, I’d like to reflect a little on your good fortune and mention some of the challenges ahead.
I want to congratulate you, your friends and families, and your classmates for your remarkable achievements. You earned this distinction because you are smart … curious … and passionate about learning. I also suspect that you are masters of multi-tasking.
In many ways, you are also privileged beyond measure. You are privileged to live in a time of information abundance.
You live in an era of inexpensive technology that lets you text, tag, twitter, and otherwise document your lives and those of your friends and families.
You can be instantly—and constantly—connected to the rest of the world regardless of time or place. You live in a bounteous information universe. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that, like the rest of us, you have only 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Many things compete for your attention—a scarce and valuable resource indeed.
How do we cope with this onslaught of information and media and everything it delivers? Does it feel like a pipeline to knowledge … or more like a tsunami of facts and opinions?
One of Thomas Jefferson’s most quoted phrases, and, aptly, the motto for the University’s Capital Campaign, is “knowledge is power.” Notice that Mr. Jefferson didn’t say “information is power.”
Clearly, acquiring information isn’t the same thing as acquiring knowledge. In the best of all worlds, information leads to new knowledge, but not all information is created equal.
This is especially true on the Internet, where it is often hard to distinguish the authentic information from the inaccurate or outdated information. Credibility is everything. But it’s not always obvious.
For instance, when you do a Google search, do you accept the first few links as the most credible information? Are we letting Google decide what is credible?
This year a staffer at a financial company did a search for bankruptcy filings in 2008 and got a link to an old story – from 2002 – about United Airlines. The staffer took it as fresh information, posted it to the newswire, United’s stock went into freefall, and the company had to release an official statement that they were, in fact, not bankrupt. In this case, easy information proved not to be credible.
It could be that the researcher was trying to do too many things at once, which I’m sure sounds familiar. Our lifestyles tempt us to walk, chat, study, watch TV, listen to music, and text-message, all at the same time.
It is often said that the “digital generation “ -- if indeed there is such a thing-- has innate talents that the rest of us don’t. It is not true. Our brains are all wired the same way, and multi-tasking may look more productive than it actually is.
I suspect that one of the reasons you are here today--sharing this moment of recognition with your families—is that you’ve learned to sort through all the distractions. You’ve developed strategies for sifting through the random “noise” to find that information that is relevant and useful to you. You know how to separate the dross from the gold.
I’m here to congratulate you …
… and also to caution all of us not to become too smug. As you progress in your academic careers and into the world of work, your information universe will grow bigger by the second. The waves of information coming at us will only get larger and more unrelenting. This would be true even without blogs and Google and Facebook.
Experts say we really can’t do more than one thing at a time effectively. We believe that we have an amazing ability to switch rapidly from one task to another, but in reality accuracy or productivity suffers.
One study says that multi-tasking causes workers to lose as much as two hours of productivity a day. That’s two hours of lost opportunity—to be creative, to make a real difference in the world.
Constant multi-tasking can drive any of us to distraction. I was definitely multi-tasking a while back when I didn’t look at my trip itinerary until I was in mid-flight. I discovered that I was headed for Phoenix when I really needed to be in Tucson. It could have been worse. At least I was going to the right state.
Nicholas Carr, a frequent writer on information technology, caused a stir this past summer with his cover story in the Atlantic Monthly. He asked the question: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
He acknowledged that Google and the Internet can be a boon for doing fast information-seeking. But he also found that it comes at a great price. He is afraid it is making it harder for us to concentrate, to sustain serious thought. He wonders if anyone reads deeply anymore.
Carr wrote that, “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once, I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Carr also appeared in a typically outrageous episode of the Stephen Colbert show. He noted that,
“We’ve become so connected to everything that we’re actually disconnected from any one thing.” …
And as Carr was saying this, Colbert listened absently and played with his iPhone.
That, too, may sound familiar. Think of the people you see in restaurants engrossed in their cell phones instead of talking to each other.
So… time is running out, and I have to get to the main point. In fact, I am going to give you two pieces of advice. The first is:
Make time for “Eureka” moments.
The Web and its proliferating enticements are helping you make an ever wider circle of friends, and to access an ever wider range of information. But they can also rob you of your time—time that’s critical to your ability to come up with your own ideas, to acquire true knowledge, and to gain insights that are the real rewards of the education you’re receiving at this great university.
An article in the New Yorker this past summer recapped recent studies by neuroscientists on how we arrive at insights -- and why they hit us when we least expect them.
It turns out that the “Eureka” moment is the product of complex processes in the brain. And for it to come to us, we have to let the mind relax and wander.
So my second piece of advice is: Turn it off!
Not all the time, and certainly not permanently. Just on occasion, turn off the laptop, the iPod, the Smart-Phone, and, if you happen to have one open, close the book.
And after you’ve done that, take a walk. Or better yet, take a nap.
The “Aha!” doesn’t happen until your brain has a chance to relax -- and to make the subtle associations needed to arrive at a breakthrough.
So, right now, assuming you’re still with me and not checking your iPhone, you’re probably thinking: “Yeah, right. As if I’m going to have time for ‘mental repose’.”
But you can make time for it. When you leave class, don’t reach for your cell phone. Don’t check your text messages. The twittering can wait. Give yourself the mental space and the time your brain needs for “big thinking.”
Take a walk, and let your mind wander with you. Knowledge and insight are sure to follow. You can count on it.
In fact, I am counting on you and your peers to create a better future for the world with your Eureka moments. We need them now more than ever.