That computers and the Internet are killing our attention spans has long been a bugbear of technology. The paranoia seems to be that we humans just can’t help ourselves. Surrounded by such a smorgasbord of technology—laptops, smartphones, virtual-reality goggles attaching themselves to our faces—we are unable to resist temptation of constant distraction. We can’t watch a video longer than six seconds anymore, let alone read a novel.
In an inexact New York Times op-ed, psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham offers the latest volley in our war with devices for our own brains. It’s not that we can’t focus, Willingham argues. “But our sense that we can’t may not be a phantom,” he writes. “Paying attention requires not just ability but desire. Technology may snuff out our desire to focus.” So the constant titillation offered by our consumer electronics is dampening even our will to consume just one thing at a time without leaping to the next.
Willingham chalks up the damaging effects of technology to a kind of pathologized FOMO (fear of missing out) rather than a change in our neural circuitry. “Digital devices are not eating away at our brains,” he argues near the end of the op-ed. “They are, however, luring us toward near constant outwardly directed thought, a situation that’s probably unique in human experience.”
“Paying attention requires not just ability but desire. Technology may snuff out our desire to focus.”
The problem is that the definition for this “outwardly directed thought” is fuzzy (scrolling through email or playing Candy Crush, apparently) and Willingham doesn’t go to any lengths to show why our current state of affairs is entirely unique. Taken one way, outwardly directed might mean that we’re always thinking of other people—our Twitter followers, our Facebook fans—and judging our actions based on them.
The opposite is inward thought—daydreaming, planning, reflecting on the past. Willingham argues that the emphasis the Internet places on outward thought comes at the expense of some meditative ideal of inward contemplation. But even with the deluge of social media, I doubt we’re thinking about ourselves any more or less. Web technology in popular discourse is always either too narcissistic or too extroverted, too communicative or not authentically communicative enough.
In the end, technology is just a conduit for our own humanity. We complain that we’ve become addicted to glowing screens, but it’s less the screens themselves than what's behind them: thousands upon thousands of other humans, all interacting with each other in degrees of real time, a mirror of society itself. I don’t believe that interacting with other people more makes me any less willing to reflect on how I fit in to this tapestry of lives.
We’ve developed a fetish for understanding how computers change our neurology, mostly because we’re plenty narcissistic in the absence of any technology. Yet as much as I disagree with the structure of Willingham’s arguments, I can’t help but feel a certain pang of sympathy. I love talking and taking part in the constant churn of social media, but I also feel the need for more silence.
“The appetite for endless entertainment suggests that worthier activities will be shoved aside,” Willingham writes. “We may buy Salman Rushdie’s book, but we’ll end up sucked in by Flappy Bird.” I don’t think it’s so much that we can’t focus on reading a novel so much as our perception of what media is engaging and entertaining has completely shifted toward the dynamic rather than the static. This isn’t a bad thing so much as it is a fact in the gradual evolution of culture.
I find I can only sit down and read a book when I remove the ability to escape from it. I sit on the couch with my phone next to me, find my eyes falling away from the static page, and my hand reaching unconsciously for the phone to see what people are talking about right now rather than what the author’s words say. I always want to be more in touch, more interconnected, more present in the current of time, rather than engaged in quiet contemplation with a single voice from what has inexorably become the past.
To pose a very imperfect metaphor for the shift from the novel to the Internet: An Egyptian reader of hieroglyphs would find Roman letters very simplistic indeed. There are no images, no reference points for meaning! But the alphabet has a dynamism that the inflexible pictograms don’t.
These days, we’re probably producing more public writing as a culture than ever before. Reading a book is like carrying on a prolonged conversation with one individual writer, but the temptation on the other side of the screen is an ongoing conversation with everyone at once, as if all of your friends were hanging out in the same room in which you’re trying to peacefully read the latest dense Great American Novel.
“Mindfulness” has become a mental discipline in opposition to technology, but I’m unsure that cultivating a sense of oneness in oneself will ever be a popular solution. Perhaps the discipline could be built in by circumstance. In the recent East Coast blizzard I was marooned inside, unable to go anywhere or see anyone, and so was perfectly content to concentrate on my book and only occasionally pick up my phone to see that everyone was still only talking about one, predictable thing: the snow.