Wednesday, 4 August 2010

We've been losing focus for a while now...

A good summary of how to think of the Internet and our increased technological and communicative interconnectivity as harmful:
Tech pundit Carr posits that modern technology encourages superficial grazing that, over generations, can rewire the brain to deleterious effect.
"One big triumph of human culture was the learned ability to pay attention to one thing for a long time, which the arrival of the book helped promote," says Carr, calling in from a Colorado vacation. (Carr hasn't yet developed the habit of switching off his cellphone while on break.) "But the Internet is about skimming and scanning and de-emphasizes our shifting into deeply attentive modes.

"As a species, we are naturally in love with distractions," he says. "This technology is taking us back to a more primitive state. This is not a good thing."
The usual comparison of any new method of transmitting and ingesting information to the hallowed print book. The problem is, the way I see it, this problem that Carr has with our increased exposure to distractions is that that what all technologies seem to do. New things provide us with more choice. More choice inevitably means the possibility for distraction and time spent deciding between choices. We hope that it means better outcomes but that's not necessarily always in the cards.

Carr claims that the printed book encourages focus and concentration but how did people gain information before it could be written down? Verbally or doing something yourself? Both are temporally transient. You have to pay attention because the person speaking or the event happening may not happen again. The book will be there in five minutes, tomorrow, next year, etc. The printing press provided MORE books and therefore MORE reason not to need to pay attention right now. Not only is the book pretty constant throughout time, but even if mine gets damaged, I can go get another one.

Other examples:

  • Multiple TV channels allow you to easily pick something else.  Same with radio.
  • Audio and video recording allow you to put off watching and listening.
  • Stories made into movies allow you to not feel compelled to focus on the book since you have another medium through which to enjoy the story.
  • Distance communication like the telegraph or telephone means that you don't need to worry as much about the message since its transmission isn't as much of an investment.  Just call back.
Invention promotes ease of use which means less work which often means less care and attention needed.

Carr is just another old crank worrying about the downfall of society...  longing for the good ol' days.  (I don't know how old he is.  Maybe I'll look it up on the Internet...)

(Of course, having written all this, my argument only shows that this trend is not new and that we've been doing it for centuries.  It does not speak to any potential harm.  Maybe this downward spiral we're on is just bigger and longer than Carr suspects.  Hmmm...)

[ A response to "Always-on technology: Are we adapting, or losing focus?" by Marco R. della Cava from USA Today ]

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