Posted tagged ‘ITV’

Losing our attention span?

July 4, 2010

I think we’ve been here before. When I was 10 years old a professor of something or other (I think it was sociology) from England visited my school, and he had a very stark warning for us young students. We were likely to be the last generation, he said, that could face the rigour of tackling an argument or understanding a treatise. And why? Because of television advertising on ITV (and I guess, Telefis Eireann, as it then was). As these pesky commercials interrupted everything every 15 minutes, our brains would adapt and would be unable to focus on anything for longer than that. For good measure, he also pointed to the growing popularity of tabloid newspapers, and their tendency to wrap up every story, no matter how complicated, in three paragraphs. At least I think that’s what he said. It took him longer than 15 minutes, and my mind may have drifted; or maybe I was just thinking, what a load of codswallop.

Anyway, the professor’s intellectual heirs have continued banging this drum (as no doubt his intellectual ancestors did, from the first moment that the printing press distributed leaflets with bite-size arguments). The most recent drum banger is Professor Gary Small of UCLA (Los Angeles), who is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as warning us about the internet, and all the Twitter and Facebook stuff. It is developing ‘new neural pathways’, he says, and we should be very afraid:

‘Deep thought, the ability to immerse oneself in an area of study, to follow a narrative, to understand an argument and develop a critique, is giving way to skimming. Young users of the internet are good at drawing together information for a school project, for example, but that does not mean they have digested it.’

All my life I have listened to people telling me that modern technology, communications or media are leaving us unable to handle big themes and arguments and are making us skim along the surface of knowledge without really taking anything in. I’m never sure what I am supposed to conclude from this – am I supposed to take a sledgehammer and destroy all that annoying computer hardware, televisions and so forth? Or am I just supposed to expand my complaints inventory and join the ‘Oh-aren’t-we-all-getting-so-thick’ brigade?

I don’t actually care about the new neural pathways, I see absolutely no evidence of a new more stupid generation. Nor do I believe that the availability of much more information, and of hyperlinks to pursue it, has killed good analysis. If there is evidence of anything at all here, it is the fear of the unknown, and of the impact of technology as it changes our lives. Right now the Amazon Kindle, and the iPad, and other devices (another post on this coming up) have helped to grow the number of readers of serious books, and news sites on the internet, including those undertaking serious analysis, are thriving. I believe that there is a natural instinct in humans to look for explanations, and the availability of information to pursue this is developing rather than hindering analytical skills. I am not of course saying that everyone does this well and that information is never misunderstood or abused – but that’s not a new problem.

So for heaven’s sake let us stop worrying about new ways of finding and disseminating information. Let us just harness it.