Sunday, July 19, 2015

Distracting ourselves to death

Is the whole world suffering from one giant case of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)?

Judging by a recent slew of articles on the subject, you might say yes.

One author calls it "The Age of Distraction." Others point out, "Multitasking is killing your brain." Or even more scary headlines, like "The Internet is Rewiring Your Brain and You Don't Even Know It."

Yikes. Has it gotten that bad?

All signs say it has. As we stay glued to our electronic devices, constantly gazing downward at the glowing screens (what one person called the "smartphone prayer position"), we ignore the world around us, often to our and someone else's peril, particularly if we are operating a motor vehicle or charging down the street or a shopping aisle.

Attention spans have gone to zero as we spend more times in our virtual worlds than the real one.

Some years ago I read a fascinating book by Neil Postman called "Amusing Ourselves to Death." The late New York University professor related how American attention spans have changed. He pointed out in the 1850s, people would sit for almost eight hours to hear the Lincoln-Douglas debates; fast forward 100 years and the average attention span had dropped to 15 minutes, then five minutes. Today it can't be measured in minutes.

Each day we are presented with an "all-you-eat" buffet of information choices. Every possible niche interest or topic, regardless of how obscure, is there, along with news, pseudo news and those millions of friends on social media vying for your attention. Along with those ever-present concerns over basic human needs -- food, shelter and clothing -- we have added a new worry: Please don't unfriend me.

But is all this really a bad thing? To have all this knowledge at your fingertips? Billions of people connected instantly via social media? Each one of us like the conductor of an orchestra, creating an information and communication symphony from a desk in our pajamas. Undreamed of personal power the world has never seen before.

Yes, but like everything in this life, it comes with a price.

Going back to the article on how it's re-wiring our brains, Francis Bea writes:

"A 2009 Stanford study concluded that people who were incessantly plugged into the Internet were 'suckers for irrelevancy.' Media multi-taskers performed poorly compared to the test subjects that weren’t frequently online in three different tests that gauged their memory and monitored how they filtered out irrelevant stimuli and switched between tasks. 'The high multi-taskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds,' researcher Eyal Ophir says.

Then there's this from the "Age of Distraction" author John Rennie Short:

"There is also something sadder at work. The constant messaging, e-mailing and 'cellphoning', especially in public places, may be less about communicating with the people on the other end as about signalling to those around that you are so busy or so important, so connected, that you exist in more than just the here and now, clearly a diminished state of just being. There’s greater status in being highly connected and constantly communicating. This may explain why many people speak so loudly on their cellphones in public places."

Amen, brother. If they ever allow unlimited cell phone use on airplanes, how long before we have the first passenger riot?

Okay, the doomsayers have been with us since time immemorial. Every new advancement in science or technology breeds dire warnings and hand-wringing. We well know the price of progress is pain. But as it pertains to the Internet, it's rarely been so widespread and directly rooted into the fabric of our brains. Some are even predicting in the very near future, artificial intelligence and human intelligence will merge, and at some point down the line, humans won't be needed at all.

Now there's a cheery thought.

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