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Nov. 22, 2010, noon

Attention versus distraction? What that big NY Times story leaves out

Yesterday’s Sunday Times devoted the lead slot of its front page to a long examination of the effects of the web on the attention spans of teenagers. In the tradition (yes, it is now a tradition) of Nick Carr, the piece concludes that, essentially, our smartphones — and our Facebook and our YouTube and our web in general — are robbing kids of their ability to concentrate. Neuroplasticity! “Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people,” the piece notes. “The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”

Rex Sorgatz summed it up like so: “‘Young people suck.’ –NYT.”

The human face of the epidemic is Vishal Singh, a seventeen-year-old from, naturally, Silicon Valley. “At the beginning of his junior year,” the Times reports, “he discovered a passion for filmmaking and made a name for himself among friends and teachers with his storytelling in videos made with digital cameras and editing software.” But that commitment to creation doesn’t transfer to schoolwork; though Vishal is entering a “pivotal academic year” in his life — his senior year, the year when colleges come calling and thus, ostensibly, futures are decided — he can’t seem to focus on the work he needs to do to do well.

Several teachers call Vishal one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up. Last semester, his grade point average was 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F in Algebra II. He got an A in film critique.

“He’s a kid caught between two worlds,” said Mr. Reilly [Vishal’s principal at Woodside High School] — one that is virtual and one with real-life demands.

Two worlds. One real, the other digital. And in the space between them is Vishal — and, by implication, several other wayward members of the world’s first generation of digital natives, the kids who are, per the the piece’s headline, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” But does that binary — the ‘two worlds’ thinking that pits the virtual realm against the ‘real,’ as if the two were engaged in an epic battle for dominance of that vast land that is Impressionable Youth — really explain what’s going on here? Does it, for example, explain the nail it-to-fail it range of Vishal’s academic performance? Maybe; there’s a chance that his F in Algebra II can indeed be blamed on some unholy union of YouTube/Facebook/Sir Berners-Lee. But, then, if distraction is a diffusive proposition — if it infects all areas of intellectual life indiscriminately, and thus, ostensibly, equally — then how do you explain the A in film critique? (Also: a class in film critique? Perhaps Vishal’s problem is simply that his school is set in a DeLillo novel.)

Attention and distraction

That’s not to discount the attention-fragmenting nature of the web. “Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything,” Vishal’s best friend, Sam, says in the story, after blaming the site for his inability to finish books and, thus, for his lower-than-desired SAT scores. And a distraction Facebook most certainly is. The question, though, is: distraction from what? And also: What’s inherently wrong with distraction? It seems to me that the real dichotomy here — to the extent, of course, that it’s fair to break any complex problem into reductive dualities — is less a matter of focus vs. distraction, and more a matter of the digital age’s spin-off opposition: interest vs. non-interest. Caring vs…lack of.

We talk a lot about fragmentation in the online world — the unbundling of the news product, the scattering of audiences, the unraveling of publics, etc. And when we do, we tend to focus on the entropic implications of that shift: “Fragmentation,” of course, carries a whiff of nostalgia not just for the thing being fragmented, but for wholeness itself — for completeness, for community, for all that’s been solid. What that framing forgets, though, is that the other side of fragmentation can be focus: the kind of deep-dive, myopic-in-a-good-way, almost Zen-like concentration that sparks to life when intellectual engagement couples with emotional affinity. The narrows, to be Carrian about it, of the niche. And when that kind of focus springs to life — when interest becomes visceral, when caring becomes palpable, when you’re so focused on something that the rest of the world melts away — the learning that results tends to be rich and sticky and sweet. The kind that you carry with you throughout your life. The kind that becomes a part of you. The kind that turns, soon enough, into wisdom.

It’s a kind of learning, though, that can’t be forced — because it relies for its initial spark on something that is as ineffable as it is intense. Interest has a way of sneaking up on you: One day, you’re a normal person, caring about normal things like sports and music and movies — and the next a Beatles song comes on the radio, and suddenly you’re someone who cares not just about sports and music and movies, but also about the melodic range of the sitar. Even if you don’t want, necessarily, to be somebody who cares about the melodic range of the sitar. Interests are often liberating; occasionally, they’re embarrassing. Either way, you can’t control them. They, in fact, control you.

The general and the personal

And that, I’d wager, is the root of Vishal’s academic problems: not that he’s not smart — indeed, again, “one of their brightest students” — and not that he’s the victim of a mass outbreak of web-borne distraction (again, that A in film critique). His problem is both simpler and more serendipitous than that: He just doesn’t care about algebra.

Which is a problem, of course, shared by probably 99.9 percent of the population who have experienced the particular pain of the polynomial. Rare is the person who genuinely likes algebra; rarer still is the person who genuinely, you know, cares about it. But we learn it anyway — because that’s what we’re expected to do. Formal education, as we’ve framed it, is not only about finding ways to learn more about the things we love, but also, equally, about squelching our aversion to the things we don’t — all in the ecumenical spirit of generalized knowledge. We value the straight-A report card not just as a demonstration of indiscriminate ability, but also as evidence of indiscriminate discipline: mastery over apathy. (An A in English and in chemistry! You, little polymath, are prepared for polite society.)

What distinguishes Vishal’s apathy, though — and what makes it more anxiety-inducing than that of the algebraic apatheists in whose footsteps he follows — is that he is coming of age in the digital era. And the digital era is bringing a new kind of empowerment not just to interest, but to aversion. The web is a space whose very abundance of information — and whose very informational infrastructure — trains our attention to follow our interests. And vice versa. In that, it’s empowering information as a function of interest. It’s telling Vishal that it’s better to spend time with video than with Vonnegut — simply because he’s more interested in editing than in reading. Vishal needs needs no other justification for his choice; interest itself is its own acquittal.

And we’re seeing the same thing in news. While formal learning has been, in the pre-digital world, a matter of rote obligation in the service of intellectual catholicism — and news consumption has been a matter of the bundle rather than the atom — the web-powered world is creating a knowledge economy that spins on the axis of interest. Individual interest. The web inculcates a follow your bliss approach to learning that seeps, slowly, into the broader realm of information; under its influence, our notion of knowledge is slowly shedding its normative layers.

For the learner, of course, that is incredibly empowering. One minute, I’m looking up a recipe for spice-roasted sweet potatoes; the next, courtesy of a few link-clicks, I’m learning that sweet potatoes are used for dye in South America, and that there exists such a thing as sweet potato butter. Which is, in a word, awesome. But it also means, on the social scale, a new ability to explore our idiosyncrasies. From Wikipedia to topic pages, from social curation to the explosive little link, the global textbook that is the web takes on a self-guided brand of dynamism, a choose-your-own-adventure proposition fueled by whim and whimsy. It’s a bottom-up shift that our top-down education systems, and journalism along with them, are grappling with. Community, after all, needs the normative to function; the question is where we draw the line between the interest and the imperative. Because as much as we talk about consumers’ desire for a curated information experience — whether on an iPad or within social networks or on the branded pages of the open web — Vishal’s volatility suggests that what we really want from the digital world is something more basic: the permission to be impulsive.

Image by Mike Licht used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 22, 2010, noon
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