Sunday, 17 November 2013

Losing Our Attention

The technological boom of the 90s has seen so many incredible, once inconceivable, inventions become available to us - ones that we would find it so difficult to live without in the post-modern age. The Internet, of course, is the primary catalyst for the complete upheaval of the way in which we communicate, connect, and, indeed, learn.

But with all the wonders that it brings: instant chat, instant knowledge, instant...everything, there is an underlying fear that lurks in the social implications of the Internet boom.

Social networking has taken a battering of late, as sociologists consider and critique the ways in which we now communicate and convey ourselves via social networking sites such as Facebook - check out this video for an interesting interpretation of the way in which we are supposedly now all so "connected".

But what worries me, is not so much the frailty and falsity of our "relationships", or "friends", but rather what the Internet is doing to our perception of learning, to our desire for knowledge.

The Internet is a student's dream - Google anything these days and, somewhere, you'll find an answer. Certainly, it is far easier to search in for a French definition, than to trawl through a dictionary. But is this instant availability of knowledge detrimental to our development as people? I mean, as thinking people?

I see two flaws with the Internet as a source of knowledge:

 1. In the quality - how do you know that the first link that you click on is truth, and fact? If anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, how are we sure of any of the claims it makes? The abundance of information now available on the World Wide Web, though it may be tantalizing interesting, precise, and clear, is not monitored by anyone. Sure, you'd think you can trust sites such as The Guardian, and The Telegraph, but where is the quality control?

2. In the ease and speed - this might seem bizarre, for surely one of the main positives of the Internet is the speed at which we can access things. Yet, the speed, the not-needing-to-learn-the-skills of patience, to dissect and to search for the answer, this is something which is concerning as it means that we no longer ask questions. We are prepared to take the first answer that comes, and if we stop asking questions, we stop learning how to learn. We simply appropriate knowledge, we consume it, we do not discover it.

The internet, although on the one hand enabling innovation and communication, will, on the other hand, lead to a serious reduction in the attention span of young people, as they grow up in a world where answers are handed to them on a plate. Diminishing our attention span as a society, it will incite laziness. Our patience as readers, learners, and also with each other will suffer (who hasn't unknowingly been distracted from a face-to-face conversation to check their email on their phone?)

This applies to sciences, economics, politics - whatever field of study or interest. If we lose the ability or the desire to learn, because we are handed the answers by those who have already figured them out, what do we become?

The effect this will have on the younger generations of readers is what concerns me the most. How will a three hundred page novel, now, hold the attention of a fourteen year old? How does an author retain our interest when we are so prone to clicking on the next thing after two minutes of concentrating?

This is a problem that contemporary authors of today will have to tackle. Zadie Smith is already doing it, others will follow suit.

How do you engage a reader, without taking up too much of their time?

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