Am I the only person whose concentration is getting worse? I can’t watch the TV without the laptop on my knee. I can’t have a conversation without checking my phone for text messages. I can barely write a proposal or presentation without skipping in and out of email. According to Nick Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, it’s a worldwide epidemic.
Carr observes “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.”
The Internet has driven much of this attention deficit. We watch You Tube rather than TV, we are more likely to receive a text message or an email than a hand written letter. Yet email promotes haste over clarity. You Tube rewards immediate gratification ahead of emotional empathy with characters. Nothing can replace the intimacy of a handwritten letter.
Carr concludes that the Internet has changed the way we consume and process information and thus changed the way we think, or somewhat more depressingly, don’t think.
This is entirely consistent with usability study results emerging from labs in Scandinavia, America, UK and here in Ireland. University College London published a study on how their users consumed two major research study websites over a five–year period, with alarming, though predictable findings.
“People using the sites exhibited ‘a form of skimming activity,’ hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would ‘bounce’ out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”
In society the role of the teacher, the priest, the minister, the policeman, the doctor are all becoming challenged. Their word is no longer taken with the gravitas it once was, and in balance this is a good thing, as we are no longer scared of independent thought. But we need to be careful that we replace their wisdom with something. As John Cougar Mellencamp put it “if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.” In our world of Web 2.0 the aggressive amateur often has a louder voice than the quieter educated, skilled or experienced professional. A blog can be as trusted as a newspaper. We celebrate that Web 2.0 is about a “conversation” with customers – a dialogue rather than a monologue – but if you look at many blogs you will struggle to find anyone actually listening, everyone is just talking.
Josh Waitzkin, a former chess champion returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, to participate in a debate on Gandhian non–violent activism. He was shocked at what he observed:
“I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief).
“From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban Outfitters.com. She had finally found her shoes!”
Maryanne Wolf, Developmental Psychologist at Tufts University argues that we have become mere decoders of information “We are not only what we read. We are how we read.” If language, thought and reading are inextricably linked, we need to consider carefully how the immediacy and intrusiveness of our technologies impact how we think and understand the world around us. At all costs we must avoid mindless celebration of technologies that challenge, rather than promote, the richness of humanity and culture.
We need to be very careful indeed how we define progress.