As a serious, yet lighthearted look into our world of overwhelming technology, I originally wrote this paper for my third inquiry for my English 111 class. The assignment was to do a research paper on a topic that was relevant in current society. My main argument in my paper is that technology is not shortening our attentions spans; it is simply creating a new way of thinking that we need to embrace. I arrived at my stance on this argument by taking minor parts of other arguments that I researched and putting them together in an argument that I feel makes the most sense.
This paper served as a turning point for me in my writing life because I realized that although I previously took pride in the fact that I only enjoyed creative writing—any genre can be enjoyable when you do it on a topic that you are truly interested in. Enjoy!
The Internet. The iPhone. The Blackberry. Google. Twitter. Are you still listening? Facebook. YouTube. Oh darn, I think I just got a text. Okay, I’m back. Skype. Hulu. Blogs. Apps.
Has this sudden burst of internet-based technology got you spinning–but you just can’t remember why? Carefully look down at your hands at whatever electronic(s) you are holding, and that is probably the beginning of the issue right there, or so the experts say. As the Internet, smart phones, and iPods have begun to inundate all aspects of our lives, we have responded with the same emotion that arises whenever our society comes up with a new form of technology: fear. As a general rule of thumb, our world has a sort of immune system response to new technologies. When new technologies enter our world, dreadful ideas, uncertainties, and threatening theories come to attack the new technology within years of its birth (Della Cava). It happened with the printing press, radio, and TV. Now the Internet and the constant state of “being connected” are currently on the chopping block. Currently, the fear is centered on something near and dear to most everyone in society: our attention spans. Do the Internet and the technology that comes along with it truly have a negative impact on our attention spans?
Through the exploration of changes in brain functions, reading, media, and our overall lifestyles, the central question is reflected upon from many different angles and by many different voices. If this case is true, and we really are slowly losing our ability to critically think, the issue at hand needs to be solved in the very near future while we can still think for greater than a minute at a time! So before modern-day technology takes its toll on us, we need to fully understand whether or not our ways of thinking are truly becoming damaged.
There’s no secret that the fast-paced nature of the Internet has given the world a different way of interpreting information, but is it really changing the way our brain works and shortening something as important as our attention span? According to BBC News, there has been a triple increase in need for Attention Deficit Disorder prescriptions such as Ritalin in the last ten years, which is about the same amount of time that the Internet has become an integral part of our lives. The news report continues to explain that if children grow up with the sole idea of pressing buttons and getting immediate responses, then their brains are naturally accustomed to getting rapid responses with everything in life. They are taught from the very start that answers are what are important, and questions are something that you should not spend much time thinking about (Settle).
Although children and their new ever-stimulating environment might be harming them, what happens to a grown person’s brain is nothing to put on the back burner. The human brain is always shaping and forming as connections break and form new pathways throughout the brain, no matter what age you are (Carr). Because of this, experts have focused equal attention on the society-wide problem of the attention span, understanding that no matter what age group you are in, no one is “safe” from the phenomenon. As Nicholas Carr, an expert on technology and its effects, explains, “I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.”
In part, this reprogramming of the brain is due to how the Internet has changed our reading habits. Reading used to be something people would delve into and sit with their novel for hours on end. Now we “power browse” and skim through things (Carr). As Nicholas Carr states, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Carr). Although research suggests that we read more now than when the TV was the favorite pastime, there is still the notion that speed and efficiency trumps the traditional mindful slow-paced form of reading.
As the way reading online has switched people’s brains from a patient, relaxed state of mind to an intense race for information, more traditional forms of media have had to adapt accordingly. Now TV shows have flashing advertisements for the new upcoming episode in the corner of the screen or have ticking banners along the bottom of any given channel. Magazines that have had more or less the same format for decades have now had to shorten their articles or provide summaries of the news (Carr). As these older forms of media have had to succumb to the new rules of attention grabbing, you might think that this war on attention has become a vicious cycle. And in fact, it is. But the cycle doesn’t end there.
Because media has catered to this favored fast-paced information age, we now have no choice but to keep up and not let the media get ahead of us. We feel the need to constantly check the news, email, Facebook, and whatever calls or texts we may have received in the last few minutes. We are allowing those technological needs to come before concluding one complete thought of our own. As Frontline’s Digital Nation documentary discusses, professors are not disappointed in current students writing; they are instead confused. Students are now as smart as ever and seem to be writing very well. Unfortunately, by reading the papers the professors can see the immediate cause and effect that the constant distractions of technology create. One professor explains that each paragraph is crafted to perfection and has a great depth of information, but the paragraphs don’t seem to flow, and in the end the paragraphs don’t work together, which ultimately sets up for an ineffective outcome. He says that it’s obvious that students are writing one paragraph and then checking their Facebook or whatnot before moving onto the next one, which is in turn affecting their overall performance (Digital Nation).
Whether it’s disruptions from paper writing or constantly checking e-mails even when the workday is over, there never seems to be a time when our brain is at ease. When your brain is in a constant state of noise there are long-term negative health effects that can occur. As Marco Cava explains, “As a species, we are naturally in love with distractions.… This technology is taking us back to a more primitive state. This is not a good thing.” As technology goes forward there are some things that we naturally go backward on, such as memory. We used to remember all our closest friends and family members’ phone numbers, but now we don’t. There is no need to because they are all programmed into our cell phones (Della Cava).
Some are ashamed that such a thing is happening, while others see no harm. Those who see no harm in the Internet’s affect on the attention span feel that we should embrace the technology and use it to our advantage—just keep a control on how often you use it. Current technology has allowed us to maximize our time and take advantage of our ability to multitask. In fact, some go as far as saying that multitasking isn’t distracting from our main activity because it is our main activity (Cowen). This school of thought is convinced that hopping back and forth on the Internet isn’t an effect of having a short attention span; instead it’s a sign that we can customize our web experience to tailor our exact needs, and we can fly through the sites quickly because we know exactly what we’re looking for.
In fact, some research shows that people have actually acquired a longer attention span because the Internet causes people to create an investment in certain sites and blogs that they come back to and visit everyday. Internet users also have an easier time keeping track of long- term stories because they can continue to update themselves on the latest news and events that happened within the specific context. Another encouraging fact stating that we might not be suddenly losing our attention span is the fact that we are in the age of information. This means that there is so much information out there on anything and everything that not all aspects of media and technology are necessarily getting shorter. For example, now DVDs have director’s cuts and two hours of deleted scenes you can watch for your viewing pleasure (Cowen). TV shows and websites are trying to interact with you on a more regular basis by having you sign up for text updates and emails. Reality TV now revolves around the viewers calling or logging into a website to vote for their favorite contestants.
There are many ways that the Internet and new technology have changed our world and the way we think, and without a doubt, the length of our attention span is certainly one of them. But to agree with a one-sided argument is much too black and white for this scenario. The Internet is its own world, and although very influential, it is just one part of our culture. There are so many things that influence our attention span that there’s no way that we can blame our rise in Attention Deficit Disorder prescriptions, constant running minds, and never-ending distractions solely on the Internet. But what we can do is acknowledge that the Internet is simply changing the way we think.
When new technologies come into existence and begin to take over, it’s easy to think that they are ruining life as we know it. In reality though, new ways of life have to come into play to keep our society moving. Change is never necessarily good or bad; it’s just different. Our attention spans really may be changing but not to make us less intelligent; they just make it so that we now find information at a quicker pace. As Tyler Cowen from the Wilson Quarterly says, “The Internet is only enhancing real-life situations.” It might leave us scattered at times, but what’s more steady than being able to log onto the Internet at virtually any time and anywhere and connect with the culture that you see yourself a part of? (Cowen) What’s more calming than knowing we can get in touch with almost anyone within the blink of an eye? What’s saying that we don’t actually have higher mental capacities today, as we now know how to find things and use our resources quicker than ever, which gives us more time to think and understand things?
As the Digital Nation documentary explains, what’s most important in today’s day and age isn’t necessarily the knowledge itself; it’s how to find the knowledge. With those words of wisdom I think we should embrace the new way of thinking that we have and are evolving into and enjoy the excitement that comes along with enjoying the frontiers of a new era. It doesn’t matter if we flip through Google hits at an obscene rate or skim through tweets at an alarming speed; what really matters is that we can find what we are looking for and get what we need—all while listening to our favorite music on Pandora, of course.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 2008. Web. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/>.
Cowen, Tyler. “Three Tweets for The Web.” The Wilson Quarterly. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2009. Web. 11 Oct. 2010. <http://www.wilsonquarterly.com/article.cfm?aid=1481>.
Della Cava, Marco R. “Attention Spans Get Rewired.” USA Today, 2011: Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier. Dir. Rachel Dretzin. PBS. Frontline, 2 Feb. 2010. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.
Settle, Marc. “Is Computer Use Changing Children?” bbc.co.uk. BBC NEWS, 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7564152.stm>.