Getting swamped online and feeling left behind versus Space to connect, probe, reflect

A story often repeated from a friend’s family:  It’s the 1970s.  The older son, aged about six, is keen on stories about rockets and astronauts.  From the car window he sees a billboard and cries out: “Dad, dad, stop, look:  ‘Space to rent’!”

Well, it’s neither outer space nor the space on billboards that this post is concerned with, and it is not something one can get by laying down money.  It is the space that gets squeezed when we get swamped with online input as we try to avoid feeling left behind.  Spend a little time in a connectivist MOOC or following people on twitter and you’ll probably feel swamped or fragmented or unsure that you can synthesize or keep in mind all the interesting items you are coming across.

The first response is to turn off and tune out.  Another approach is to allow yourself a delimited amount of time per day, say 30 minutes, to explore online offerings or sharings and also carve out equal or more time (preferably when you are fresh at the start of the day) to gather your thoughts based on whatever is currently in view or in mind, which may be quite different from what you have to do for your work or project or studies.  Such “refractive practice,” in which you give yourself space to  “connect, probe, and reflect” (, makes it less likely that you feel left behind when you don’t follow or respond to every thread that is offered, however worthwhile they seem at first sight.

Eventually or ideally, we would like to go further, for our online interactions to support us in lifelong development that combines—gives integrity to—our personal, professional, and friendship realms.  Instead of having to set limits or worry about being left behind, we feel clear about what we are choosing to get involved in and thrive in the involvement.  Another way to express this is to say that we are well scaffolded and provide sustainable scaffolding for others (

Today I happened to revisit the principles of the Burning Man festivals and their worldwide offshoots:    I haven’t seen a more fully developed view of what I would call scaffolding.  But, when I think about this as a model for scaffolding in work and life, I realize that these festivals duck the problem by building emphemerality into the name and the symbol — the giant Man gets Burned at the end, the site is cleaned up so as to leave no trace, and everyone goes home.  Some relationships formed at the festivals continue and mini-burners are arranged in local communities, but the festival scaffolding doesn’t have to address the challenge of how one helps people (oneself included) open up or see alternative paths in the complex conjunction of people (and their component strands: body, cogitation, unconscious), community, context, tools and processes, and focus on a product (see  Are there useful translations to the non-emphemeral that can be made?

Today I started to reread Vivian Paley’s The Girl with the Brown Crayon.  There is sustained and open-ended scaffolding going on in the kindergarten classroom she describes.  Are there useful translations to the case of working with adults that can be made?

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

3 Responses to Getting swamped online and feeling left behind versus Space to connect, probe, reflect

  1. Rhoda Maurer says:

    Beautifully shared, Peter! It’s a story that connects on multiple levels!

  2. Jennifer Dessigny says: interesting observation about the burning man getting burned at the end to really put the experience to bed. It would, of course, be impossible to sustain the Burning Man festival in its current form, so it makes for a rather poetic end to an unsustainable lifestyle. However, the question of how to sustain a somewhat similar lifestyle remains. Is it possible for humans to continue living in multiple communities all of the time while being active enough in each of them to sustain the relationships necessary?

    Living in the age of multi-tasking, I have a hard time agreeing on a definitive answer. On the “yes” end, I see a lot of people living that multi-tasking lifestyle, but on the “no” end, they are often leading lives that are more shallow in each community because of the fact that they have to stretch their resources too far. To use an analogy, if I had one serving of maple syrup on one pancake, I would be perfectly content with the ratio, but if I had just the one serving on a dozen pancakes, I would probably be off searching for more, or perhaps simply less inclined to eat all of my pancakes.. leaving some completely untouched. In times where people lived, worked, socialized, etc. etc. in only one community, ties were bound to be stronger. As we reach further and further in to globalization, however, one has to wonder how shallow that could lead our existence to be.

  3. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Dear Peter, I’m still reflecting on your post and the readers’ comments, thinking about how to know what to do about sustainability, open endedness and the exuberant wisdom of kids like Reeny. Thanks for the helpful insights and stories.

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