A lot has been made of the supposed havoc that the Internet and social media are wreaking on our attention spans, memory, creativity, relationships…The list goes on and on. But it’s important to take a step back from the “kids these days” media hype and put recent technological advancements in their proper historical context. The truth is, we have been worrying about the impact of technology on our collective humanity for centuries.
Let’s start with the telegraph. When he signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law in 1967, President Johnson made some incredibly forward-thinking comments about technology and (what was then) new media, even predicting the emergence of the Internet as a tool for learning and discovery. He anticipated potential critics, quipping about the short-sightedness of telegraph skeptics in the 1800s.
In 1844, when Henry Thoreau heard about Mr. Morse’s telegraph, he made his sour comment about the race for faster communication. “Perchance,” he warned, “the first news which will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
Hm…Sounds a bit like Twitter-bashing to me!
Fast forward to the telephone. According to futurist Nick Bilton,
If you look at when the telephone came out, the front page of The New York Times said that people would never leave their home again. When the phonograph came out, there was an article in New York Times with this great line: blessed be the boy of the future who never has to learn how to read. They really believed that that was going to happen. We’re going through the same thing right now with screens.
So there really is a historical precedent for our fears. And to those who worry that we are losing our ability to read a classic tome or even a New Yorker article, well, there just might be evolutionary evidence suggesting that we humans simply aren’t designed to have great attention spans. Programmer Jörn Zaefferer found this fantastic nugget in Donald A. Norman’s book Emotional Design:
Today it is customary to argue that short attention spans are caused by advertisements, video games, music videos, and so on. But, in fact, the ready distractibility of attention is a biological necessity, developed through millions of years of evolution as a protective mechanism against unexpected danger: this is the primary function of the visceral level. This is probably why one byproduct of the negative affect and anxiety that results from perceived danger is a narrowing and focusing of attention. In danger, attention must not become distracted. But in the absence of anxiety, people are easily distracted, continually shifting attention. William James, the famous philosopher/psychologist, once said that his attention span was approximately ten seconds, and this in the late 1800s, far before the advent of modern distractions.
So again, nothing new. I guess you could still argue that modern technology is preying on our hard-wired lack of focus, but I believe that we humans are pretty resilient and adaptable. So instead of overwhelming ourselves with worry, let’s focus on the remarkable opportunities presented by everything from crowdsourcing to social networking to geolocation. To quote Johnson again, “We do have skeptic comments on occasions. But I don’t want you to be that skeptic. I do believe that we have important things to say to one another–and we have the wisdom to match our technical genius.“