Cathy Davidson pulls lessons from far and wide to help us understand how to make the most of our right now.
It’s practically a requirement to raise an eyebrow at a person who calls herself an innovator. Innovator. It’s such a grand word. Isn’t that something we get to brand a person, not something she gets to call herself? Yet, every once in a while, somebody gets a pass. Or more than a pass. Every once in a while you come across a person who really should have “innovator” bedazzled on all of her shirts and printed on her license plates.
Take, for instance, Cathy Davidson. After a few minutes of eyeballs a-jumping through her bio—co-founder of the 7,000-member Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), former Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke from 1998-2006, current English professor at Duke; after scrolling through the list of books she’s written or edited, which cover territory from understanding Japanese culture to the rise of the American novel to brain science; after finding out about her role in the creation of programs at Duke, including the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the program in Information Science + Information Studies (ISIS); and, even more so, after hearing the sheer excitement in her voice when she discusses the Internet, education, her newfound love of young adult fiction and her ability to tie ideas together and make them accessible—well, innovator sounds downright humble.
And, considering Davidson’s inspiration for finding a way to describe herself, it’s clear that she’s also a bit of a hoot.
“I watched America’s Next Top Model last night, and a branding expert was on and gave each model a brand,” Davidson says. “If I had a brand [it] would be innovator. I really have never fit a mold including, I would say, one of the most important molds of the 20th century, which is specialization.”
Davidson’s reality TV admission may, in many ways, help sum her up better than her bio or a list of her books ever could. She walks away with lessons from everything she encounters and isn’t afraid to merge the ideas from one world into another.
Her latest book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, looks at what we need to do to leapfrog current-day workplaces and schools into the digital age. With all of the new tools and technology we’ve developed, why are we still working and learning based on, ahem, old school ways?
To the Future, Now
Innovator isn’t just Davidson’s brand, it’s a centerpiece of her belief system. She believes innovation itself must be top of mind for all of us if we want to put the technology we’ve already got (and the goodies to come) to work. At the moment, we’re playing catch up to the technology when it should be working for us.
Take, for example, the idea “the Internet is making me stupid. I just Google things when I need to know them.” Ever say it? Think it? Hear somebody say it? (No shame. It’s a common modern-day refrain. Breaking the fourth wall here: Even the writer of this piece will cop to uttering it on a forgetful day. Feel better?) But Davidson thinks the notion of the Internet dumbing us down is hogwash—the same brand of hogwash that caused widespread fear when mass production of books first became available.
“It was at the time of the founding fathers when steam-powered presses and machine-made paper and ink made books available to real readers—middle class, working-class readers—for the first time in human history,” Davidson says. “Our founding fathers were so worried about it. What would it do to a democracy that people could read these cheap books that no preacher or governor was translating for an audience in a very specific way? How wild would they be if they had all these things? How distracted would they be if they had all this stuff?”
Turns out, they were fine. Much better than fine, even. (Really, can you imagine our world without books?)
But that didn’t stop the powers-that-be at institutions a-plenty from going all fidgety when the Internet rolled around.
“When I was Vice Provost…people were saying, oh, the Internet ruins their brains,” Davidson says. “It makes us distracted.”
All of the talk of distraction is a fear thing, Davidson says. Kids who haven’t known a world without the Internet don’t talk about getting thrown off. It’s just always been their way of thinking and working. And it hasn’t made them into the non-reading, texting monsters we’ve come to think they are. Davidson cited a recent study that found that 15-year-old kids today read more books outside of school than their parents read at the same age.
So if the kids can handle it, isn’t it time us adults find a way to stop blaming and start embracing technology just that much more? Isn’t it time we stop offering up fear and blame and, instead, find ways to make it work?
While the mass publication of books led to the development of new institutions and ideas—compulsory education, for one—and we’ve seen changes in our personal lives because of the Internet, our institutions haven’t kept up. Davidson thinks it’s high time we saw some rejiggering.
“What innovations can we do to our standard institutions of work and school to make them fit the world, not of the future, but the world we all ready live in?” she asks.
Concentrate (For a Bit)
Still not convinced that the Internet isn’t making you stupid? OK, forget the kids. Davidson also cited a recent study on worker productivity.
“[It found] that people who think they are unproductive because they are spending too much time on social media at work…are more productive than people who say, ‘I shut out all the social media because I want to be productive at work,’” Davidson says. “[That is] if you measure their actual productivity by months instead of by day.”
And that’s information you can put to work.
“We know after three minutes of sustained work, sustained focus, you start losing focus. At five minutes you’re kind of gone. Forget 20 minutes,” Davidson says.
And the fix isn’t in switching to some other task. It is, quite possibly, Facebook (or Twitter).
“What we’re finding with social media is that a little refresher where you wander away from the computer screen and do something fun is, in fact, better for attention than if you try to focus on your screen—because you’re actually not,” Davidson says.
So, how about it? Baby steps toward innovation (and doing your part to turn the workplace into a place that really uses technology)?
Of course, there’s much more thinking to do before the workplace revolution can take place.
“The Industrial Age needed Emily Post to teach it rules of etiquette,” Davidson says. “It needed Frederick Winslow Taylor to teach it about productivity, and workplace productivity and efficiency. We haven’t yet invented our Emily Post for the digital age, or the Frederick Winslow Taylor for a digital age.”
Seems Davidson might need a little more time before she’s willing to give herself those titles. That’s OK. We’re happy to handle that task for her. One+
A Question for Your Next Meeting
Wondering how to add a bit of Cathy Davidson magic to your next meeting or conference? Then it’s time to put a question into play: What are we missing? During each meeting of Davidson’s organization, HASTAC, they pull a name of one participant out of a hat. The chosen person has to “think about what we talked about at the meeting and think about what we’re missing. That [person] can be the intern,” Davidson says. “It can be somebody who is only loosely associated with us. Typically, the intern knows more about what we’re missing than anybody else.”
Though Davidson says the shy can, now and again, be given a pass to offer a post-meeting back-channel answer, it’s far more effective when it’s done on the spot.
“The person that is stumbling around inevitably is the one that says something to which we all go, ‘Oh, my god, we completely forgot that,’” Davidson says. “You get really good feedback very quickly.”
And, no, nobody gets to opt out of the hat pull. The activity makes the meeting a better one while it’s going on and when everybody finds out what, of course, was missing.
“What it means is that everyone pays a lot more attention at meetings because you never know if you’re the one whose name is going to be pulled out of the hat,” Davidson says. “Innovation for me is a calculated disruption.”
One+ March 2012,
value of meetings