Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Short Attention Spans?

A transatlantic debate is currently raging about whether a decade of staring at computer screens, sending emails and text messages, and having our research needs serviced instantly by Google and Wikipedia, has taken a terrible toll on our attention, until our brains have been reconfigurated and can no longer adjust the tempo of our mental word-processing to let us read a book all the way through. ... The average-length novel is too much of a stretch for the time-challenged, multi-tasking, BlackBerry-prodding "entertainment consumer" to ontemplate reading, let alone the 700-page biography of VS Naipaul or Edith Wharton. Not because of the size of books, but because of the thought processes they contain.
This piece by John Walsh in the Independent (pictured below) has been preying on my mind over the last week or so. Is it true that our internet us is shortening our attention spans alarmingly to the extent that we cannot read as effectively as we could before? (That reading skills are changing in the internet age is something we have, of course, discussed before.)

My page-hopping- hyperlink clicking-YouTube-downloading self wonders if it might be true ... and doesn't necessarily want to hear the answer.

These days I have to make it a point to get right away from the screen (which actually means leaving the house least my itchy fingers draw me back to the keyboard!) for extended stretches of time so that I can get some serious (book) reading done. I don't know why, but I feel that I am finding focusing on the written word off-screen harder ... hitherto I'd put it down to senility creeeping in! And I thought it was just me!

But in excellent piece (which honestly, you must read) called Is Google Making Us Stupid? in the Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr writes :
When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon.
So friends, how are your heads these days?


Eliza said...

Hey Sharon - I used to look forward to thick tomes and getting lost in them was not a problem at all. Now, I look at books thicker than 300 pages and wonder if I would ever get through the whole thing. My attention span is definitely shorter - and it takes more effort to stick through a book to the end. It all depends on how good the narrative is, I suppose. It's not a good development, no.

animah said...

Oh yes. I should be writing but am more interested in political developments through the net.

ardiles said...

Can't even get past Sharon's articles.

What to do laah.

Anonymous said...

There are more books to read now, too.


Damyanti said...

For me it depends on how much the book draws me in, I guess. I finished a book at a stretch yesterday.

Now that I think back, though, I was away from my mac all of yesterday, first in a car, then a flight, then in a room without internet.

Subashini said...

I completely agree with Carr's article. It makes me immensely depressed because it's either a) I'm getting older and I'm getting softer, not just all over my body but in my head, too or b) the Internet is making me flighty and ditzy. But the thing is, I can't concentrate on a book the way I used to.

HOWEVER, when I was laid up at home with the chickenpox sometime last year and got plain sick of the computer, I was devouring books like I used to when I was a kid. Not just devouring, but losing myself in them - when I stayed away from the internet long enough, that is.

I don't know what to, even right now I'm trying to write this comment and download a song and read an album review on Pitchfork and read an article at The Nut Graph all at once. Help.

Anonymous said...

Modern life always makes people "more stupid". We used to be able to hunt animals armed with sharpened sticks. We used to be able to live with caves. We used to be able to make fire with sticks and vines.

And now we can do none of these things.

Anonymous said...

live _in_ caves... I wonder if I can get Bib to edit my posts lol :)

Anonymous said...

I just read an article by a psychologist that talked about the neurological changes that come from too much exposure to "electronica" (video games email etc. I assume) and how that disolves one's capacity for boredom. It goes on to say that boredom, much as we loath it, is critical for empathy and social relations. Very interesting--the author is Dr Adam Cox and I get his newsletter via email but he posts them on his webssite eventually.

I had also read the Atlantic article but if you were interested in that you should definitely hunt up Dr. Cox's observations as it was spot-on. You can google him. I'm so relieved when I see people reading, feel like there are kindred spirits. When my children were small I couldn't get through more than a magazine before I fell asleep but now they are in school I have been reading again and do feel a bit smarter! But some days I surf the internet pointlessly then wonder why I did it. (Though one finds things like this.)