I try to keep this short.
In the past years research has been done to look at the effect of new technology and the Internet on kids.
One of the results measured is that people seem to be able to focus less on tasks that require a longer attention span: “because of the internet”.
It is seen as a “big threat” as it is “rewiring the brain” and (from this article in the “Daily mail”):
The neuroscientist believes technology may be behind the ‘alarming’ rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the growth in the use of anti-hyperactivity drug Ritalin.
The Oxford University expert believes constant computer and internet use may be ‘rewiring the brain’, shortening attention spans, encouraging instant gratification and causing a loss of empathy.
Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said brain circuits honed by reading books and thinking about their contents could be lost as people spend more time on computers.
I do not buy this
I do not buy the theory as a whole. I think that we simply do not live in the same world as 20 and 40 years ago, from where a lot of our more “modern” morals and ideas about human nature stem.
I think this issue of distraction and lack of attention span is nothing new and pre-dates Internet with at least 50.000 to 1.000.000 years (if you add our genetic mammalian parents to the equation). People are not getting more stupid or more deficit as time progresses due to internet.
Why I write this post
The idea that Internet is destroying our youths brain seems to become a very persistent urban legend. It might have happened sometimes somewhere, everyone is talking about it and when we want to see the hard evidence, the rumor fades out… for a while.
It is also very stigmatizing. Like: “Negroes have a natural advantage in music making and dancing”.
What I think is the real issue
We simply are finding find out that the world is a better place than we imagined, with more awesome challenges than we can imagine or offered in our jobs and with a lot of people somewhere else who simply are more fun and more interesting than the ones that surround us in our close proximity.
As a consequence we just want better stuff, more interesting people, more impulses and more meaning in our work to compete with the fun stuff we can find online and the stuff we might be able to do instead.
And most of our old school models on reality, work and education are not offering this.
Blame cultural evolution
It is a logical cultural development and a logical cultural evolution. Due to the recent awesomeness of things and the instant access to exciting thoughts, old-school reality is simply… boring.
Why watch a 1980 movie with people you do not like in a story still going nowhere 30 minutes after it started when you can watch one instead that is clear, smart, focused and fun to watch? Why read a boring book written 100 years ago when there is so much other stuff that is written better, more relevant and more contemporary 2 years ago? Why listening to a boring conversation when you can play Angry Birds? Why do grey and boring stuff in a grey and boring job when the world out there can offer so much more color and fun?
Why go to school when most of the information can be found online: when you really need it?
Why read this blog?
The current 20-something generation seems to be in the middle of this. And seems to (partially) get it. And will hopefully create a smarter, faster, more humanly interesting reality while living their lives.
Eating dry, factory produced bread for lunch – because our parents did so before – simply is not acceptable anymore. In anything.
Our standards need to be revised
It is us, the old farts, with our old-school companies, old school education, old people and our old school thinking based on pre-abundance and slow-change times who are not getting the fact that the world has changed.
This new society is switching one gear up while “we”, who helped establish this, are slowly falling behind: wondering what the fuck has happened to the world around us.
One way to put it is this: writers like Charles Dickens and Jules Verne and composers like Bach and Beethoven are no longer a relevant part of our culture. They have been surpassed.
You can no longer show up in sweaters fashionable in 1991. You can no longer use approaches to things that were in fashion 20 years ago. You can no longer expect that what was relevant for you is relevant or interesting for the new generations. The world has moved on. To ignore progress is a mistake.
To believe our kids suffer from ‘attention deficit disorder’ when we bore them to death is ignoring the new reality we are shaping all the time.
And for those who believe that this new generation will be screen bound and communicating via text only: the new reality they are shaping will definitely be more social and more socially interactive than we know now. It is not them, but us, the older generations who will fall behind into more and more forms of social isolation we even never knew existed.
It is already happening without us knowing it.
So what about the deeper stuff on: “attention span disorder”?
The economics of doing things
We have an internal mechanism / wiring that measures the short term economics of things we do. It is very likely based on:
- Sensory/emotional feedback – Is it fun? Does it please me?
- Fast and weighted economical calculations of patterns – Allowing us to project if a thing we are doing or will be doing is rewarding.
This reward is short term and very primary. It does not involve abstract thinking. It is all aimed at fun and self-satisfaction. And it can be very destructive if there is no personal discipline to counter the actions you might take.
How short term and destructive it can be: not paying the bills, taking drugs and not putting the garbage outside gives a much greater satisfaction on the short term than doing it. On the long term you end up with a mess and without a home.
I think – as stated before in some way – that the main issue is not “the internet” but how we deal with boredom.
When I look at my own behavior:
- Branching out when bored – When I do something boring, or a thing that keeps me waiting, I tend to branch out to other things. I tend to go for short bursts like Twitter or reading an article on Engadged.
- Completely immersed when interested – When the stuff interest me, like building a new framework or solving some kind of interesting challenge I completely immerse. I can forget about food, sleep, e-mail, going to the toilet. I simply do not care about what else is going on until I am done.
Interlude – Reading “Infinite jest”
I am – for instance – not able to finish the highly acclaimed (see for instance the endorsements under the synopsis here) “Infinite Jest” for the very same reason: boredom. It takes a lot of effort to continue reading what is kind of an “SF” novel that really has nothing to offer me but vague blandness in the first 100 pages that I managed to read. And since I have over 100 other books and things which are more fun and of which 10 are more mind blowing – and thus more rewarding on the short term – to read, I simply give up.
It is not that I do not like to read. Or that I only read short stuff like Twitter. It is simply that the economics of reading: “Infinite Jest” turns out to be negative in my case: Too much effort for not enough personal reward.
Were it – on the other side – that “Infinite Jest” was my only book to read next to the dictionary, in the middle of the desert and without Internet: the economy changes and I would finish it. And very likely like it.
Immediate availability and short term satisfaction
- Economics of time and result – When I have another side project and I know I can not do anything of relevance to it, due to time constraints, I skip that option and do something else. Simpler put: it does not pay off to do “that other thing”as it does not lead to satisfactory results.
- Snack time! Immediate result – Reading an article, wasting time on something fun is satisfactory. It has good short term economics for my system. I enjoy it. Simpler put: eating a candy bar gives much more/better short term result to my system than eating 200 grams of cooked broccoli.
- We did not have this type of merge in the past – The “internet distractions” of the past are: crossword puzzles, television, newspapers and comic books. They all provide a similar type of satisfaction. Short, fast, economical. But in another physical location – if you want to avoid the temptation. With computers and internet, distractive media is right around the corner, anywhere you are online.
- It is nothing new – So what has changed? Mainly that we do not have a mindset and rule set incorporated to separate our fun & games from other things. Companies do it by blocking facebook and twitter. And they are right. Unfortunately, blocking the entire internet has negative consequences as a lot of services offered decrease the “time to result”.
Personal discipline and fun
The only two ways to stay productive are discipline and fun.
- Discipline and professional dis-interest – When I work, I work. Everything else is distraction. So even if some nuclear power plant is about to burn a hole to the center of Earth, or there are new photos of Britney Spears pussy, I do not care until my working day is done. Then – maybe – I catch up
- Fun – If my work is boring as shit, because I have no fucking clue what the purpose is, who is served and why it might be relevant, I will even be prepared shoot up my vains with some kind of experimental stimulant that might kill me to avoid sinking down in depression. In other words: if the work is not fun, I need, I crave for that distraction. The alternatives are sports, pills, discipline or suicide.
To state that “the internet is changing us” is a load of crap.
What has changed is the access to- and availability of stuff that distracts us from boredom.
Since we are sitting right on top of the stuff we need, and accessing it is just typing in some keywords in Google, we need to change something in our approach to do the stuff that bores us.
On the other side, the new generations are already re-shaping the world by not fitting in the old models anymore. And I have a lot of faith in these “distracted” “”hyperactive” “deficit” “risk taking” new generation. As they resemble me more than the people who think they have a problem.