Reading, Technology and the Art of Attention

Matt Richtel’s recent article in the New York Times—Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction—was the latest salvo in the debate about how technology is “re-wiring” the human brain. This is a hot conversation. It’s easy to take sides on the extremes and lose the nuances.

Nicholas Carr raised the temperature of the debate in 2008 with an article in the Atlantic—Is Google Making Us Stupid? As a result of spending a lot time online, Carr notes, his experience of reading changed:

Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Soon afterward, Linda Stone coined a term for the tendency to simultaneously monitor email, text messages, and social networks—all while in the midst of another activity (such as doing paid work). She calls this continuous partial attention and has even linked it to changes in breathing (email apnea).

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell suggested a reason why many of us get great ideas while we’re in the shower: It’s one of the few places where we unplug from technology, enjoy solitude, and allow ideas to bubble up from the bottom of the mind.

I’ll admit that the “Growing Up Digital” article scared me. As a writer, editor, and parent, I felt a visceral fear as I read about a teenager who prefers YouTube to books. Richtel quotes this kid:

On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

Yikes.

I found some solace in Cathy Davidson’s response to Richtel’s piece. She describes the article as “lots of anecdotal evidence and a smattering of neuroscience thrown in….” She wisely points out the contradiction between describing young people as distracted and addicted to technology: “Addiction, of course, is the most focused form of attention.”

I’ll keep you posted on new volleys in this debate. You’ll need to wait, though, until after I catch up with You Tube and TED.

Photo by compujeramy, Flickr Creative Commons