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Attention Deficit

The use and abuse of technology has been a subject that has interested me for a while now. In our technologically (over) saturated environment the question of how we relate to our tools and what our ability (or inability) to do so in healthy ways says about us as human beings is an important one. What is our cultural addiction to the internet doing to us as people? How is it affecting our ability to think, to concentrate, to devote sustained periods of attention to a task? What will children raised in a technified society be like as adults? These are all live questions, from my perspective, and the signs don’t look so good.

This month’s New York magazine has a very interesting (and indicting!) article about technology and attention that is well worth a read. It’s a bit on the long side, at least by online standards, but definitely twenty minutes or so well spent (prove the author wrong—you can concentrate for that long, right?). I’ve written about this phenomenon before so I won’t beat a dead horse. I will, however, give you a few of the memorable quotes. Aside from being very interesting content, it’s a hilariously written piece:

If the pundits clogging my RSS reader can be trusted (the ones I check up on occasionally when I don’t have any new e-mail), our attention crisis is already chewing its hyperactive way through the very foundations of Western civilization. Google is making us stupid, multitasking is draining our souls, and the “dumbest generation” is leading us into a “dark age” of bookless “power browsing.” Adopting the Internet as the hub of our work, play, and commerce has been the intellectual equivalent of adopting corn syrup as the center of our national diet, and we’ve all become mentally obese. Formerly well-rounded adults are forced to MacGyver worldviews out of telegraphic blog posts, bits of YouTube videos, and the first nine words of Times editorials. Schoolkids spread their attention across 30 different programs at once and interact with each other mainly as sweatless avatars… We are, in short, terminally distracted. And distracted, the alarmists will remind you, was once a synonym for insane.

Many of us will recognize the problem the author describes. What about the cause?  Here’s what one expert has to say:

For Mann, many of our attention problems are symptoms of larger existential issues: motivation, happiness, neurochemistry. “I’m not a physician or a psychiatrist, but I’ll tell you, I think a lot of it is some form of untreated ADHD or depression,” he says. “Your mind is not getting the dopamine or the hugs that it needs to keep you focused on what you’re doing. And any time your work gets a little bit too hard or a little bit too boring, you allow it to catch on to something that’s more interesting to you.”

Mann’s advice can shade, occasionally, into Buddhist territory. “There’s no shell script, there’s no fancy pen, there’s no notebook or nap or Firefox extension or hack that’s gonna help you figure out why the f#!@ you’re here,” he tells me. “That’s on you…  [I]f you are having attention problems, the best way to deal with it is by admitting it and then saying, ‘From now on, I’m gonna be in the moment and more cognizant.’

“Where you allow your attention to go ultimately says more about you as a human being than anything that you put in your mission statement,” he continues. “It’s an indisputable receipt for your existence. And if you allow that to be squandered by other people who are as bored as you are, it’s gonna say a lot about who you are as a person.”

Yikes! Where you allow your attention to go is an “indisputable receipt for your existence?” I find that simultaneously creatively-put and slightly terrifying. I find it all too easy to drift off into cyber-distraction land when a sermon is being birthed breech or an article just won’t take shape. Too often, I forget that my attention is a resource that, like any other, can be easily squandered and for which I am ultimately accountable.

Probably the most memorable image from the article (and there a handful—at one point he cites evidence to suggest that people who obsessively check their email are functionally equivalent to someone high on marijuana) is the author’s comparison of the internet to a Skinner box:

The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction. As B.F. Skinner’s army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly but something called “variable ratio schedule,” in which the rewards arrive at random. And that randomness is practically the Internet’s defining feature: It dispenses its never-ending little shots of positivity—a life-changing e-mail here, a funny YouTube video there—in gloriously unpredictable cycles. It seems unrealistic to expect people to spend all day clicking reward bars—searching the web, scanning the relevant blogs, checking e-mail to see if a co-worker has updated a project—and then just leave those distractions behind, as soon as they’re not strictly required, to engage in “healthy” things like books and ab crunches and undistracted deep conversations with neighbors. It would be like requiring employees to take a few hits of opium throughout the day, then being surprised when it becomes a problem.

Well, that’s not a very flattering picture is it? I have this image of legions of office drones around the world slavishly pressing their reward bars, getting their requisite stimulation, and stumbling unthinkingly around in another day of distracted stupor. I think that henceforth, when the temptation to let my attention wander presents itself, I will try to imagine myself as one of Skinner’s rats looking for its next fix. If that isn’t an unflattering enough picture of myself to stimulate resistance to the technological machine I don’t know what is.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to devote sustained attention to something.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It does seem to be a very entertaining essay. I think the Skinner’s Box metaphor does fit the internet. It also fits many other things that we do – like reading New York magazine, and other magazines and newspapers, but also things like hiking (which I do a lot.)

    Whether the internet have reduced our ability to concentrate is perhaps an interesting question for a psychologist to investigate. I don’t think it has. A previous generation asked the same question about television. My understanding is that long ago our ancestors shifted from favoring an oral culture (in which things written were suspect) to favoring or trusting what is written more than what was spoken. I imagine that some people (ancient ludites) worried that this shift would ruin life forever.

    May 25, 2009
    • I think the internet really is a different kind of animal than television (or hiking and reading!). I suppose each person is different, but I can certainly say that it has affected my ability to concentrate like nothing else. Hiking and reading may offer “rewards” like Skinner’s box, but the rewards seem to be of a different kind and require much more patience and restraint than the internet.

      May 26, 2009
  2. Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing this… The article is hilarious! and the problem is, indeed, a little too close to home.

    June 2, 2009
    • Good to hear from you Eric! How are things going out in New York? I hope all is well with you guys and that you’re making headway in your studies…

      June 2, 2009

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