Did the internet shorten your attention span?

It seems that every time we invent new technology that improves the quality of our lives, and allows us to work and learn faster and more efficiently, someone finds out that that same technology is somehow harmful. Back when I was a kid, people were blaming TV. TV was making us stupid, they said. Because of TV and video people read less, write less and spend most of their time veging out on the couch.

Then we got the internet – a wonderful medium that is not as passive as TV. It allows you to actively seek out information, learn play and communicate with others faster and more efficiently than ever before. What do smart researches say now? The internet is making us stupid. The attention span of an average internet user is now shorter than that of a nervous rabbit on crack. People don’t read anymore – they skim and jump around. No one even buys dead tree books anymore! The sky is falling!

If we look back far enough, we will see that technological progress was always accompanied by these sort of concerns. Socrates worried that reliance on written word will make men forgetful and overly reliant on written sources. Opponents of the printing press complained that wide availability of books will promote intellectual laziness. When radio started becoming popular people predicted similar intellectual malaise.

I usually dismiss such complaints as Luddite ramblings spread by those who fear and lack understanding of the new technology and the new ways of thinking. But these worries about how internet is affecting the inner workings of our minds is not baseless. Take the longish article written by Nicholas Carr for The Atlantic. He makes a really good case for this theory and supports it with copious amounts of quotes and references. It is a great read, but you clearly realize that it is simply a well written opinion piece when you see that Carr has no hard data to support his claims. His case is built around anecdotes and observations.

I’m a scientist, technologist and a geek at heart – I need data. Not statistics, not surveys, not anecdotes. I need data collected in formal double blind studies run multiple times with different population samples in different conditions to rule out simple correlations. Until we have that I will dismiss the “technology is making us stupid” rants are Luddite fear mongering.

Technology is most certainly not making us stupid. While it may be changing the way we are thinking, it is not changing it for worse. If anything, we have been getting progressively smarter as a species in the recent years. Laura Miller in her article for salon.com writes:

IQ tests have to be regularly updated to make them harder; otherwise the average score would have climbed 3 percent per decade since the early 1930s. (The average score is supposed to remain at a constant 100 points.) And IQ measures problem-solving ability, rather than sheer data retained, which has grown even faster over the same interval. Each of us knows many more people and facts than our counterparts of 100 years ago; it’s just that the importance of those people and facts remains somewhat uncertain. Knowing a little bit about Lindsay Lohan and Simon Cowell (two people I recognize despite having no active interest in either one) can’t really be equated with knowing a bit about Marie Curie or Lord Mountbatten. We have more information, but it isn’t necessarily more valuable information.

Modern men are able to store, catalog and process much more information than ever before. We learn much more rapidly than ever before. We adapt to changes much better than our ancestors did. We are much better at looking at the big picture. We excel at identifying patterns in large data sets, processing large amounts of information, multitasking and making decisions based on abstract inputs.

Lamenting that average citizen is not reading as long and as deeply as the prominent thinkers of the past is rather silly. For one, let’s stop comparing apples to oranges. There have been always stupid people on this world who didn’t read books, or try to better themselves intellectually. The only difference is that now they all have Facebook and twitter account – so their ignorance is plainly visible on the interwebs.

Personally, I don’t think that my attention span changed that much. It’s true – I used to read much more books when I didn’t have a computer or internet. But that’s simply because there was nothing else to do. I filled my idle time reading, painting miniatures, drawing and writing down ideas for games and RPG campaigns. Now I spend my idle time reading, blogging, programming, learning new programming languages, playing video games, researching stuff that interests me, reading technology related blogs, learning stuff related to my field, looking up shit for friends and family who do not know the art of Google Foo and etc. I simply have more things to do on in my free time these days – and consequently less time to commit to each of these things.

Still, I have no problems committing to a single thing. I do not suffer from the internet induced ADHD the alarmists seem to be complaining about. People actually joke that I have selective hearing. When I’m working on something I usually tune out all external stimuli and they usually need to call out my name 3-4 times before I actually hear it. Sometimes I don’t even notice people hovering over my desk asking me questions.

This is also the state in which I’m most productive and my work is most enjoyable. I hate being interrupted every couple of minutes because this breaks my flow of thoughts. The more work gets piled on me, the less I can actually get done during the day. Some days I can’t even get into the zone because my work requires me to make constant context switches.

But perhaps I’m different. Perhaps my computer science education and programming background predisposes me for that type of concentration. I also like to read dead tree books. I like stuff that is smart, ambitious and thought provoking. I can’t imagine my life without the internet, but I don’t view it as a distraction. I never really needed software like Writespace or Writeroom to help me concentrate.

Maybe my programming and my blogging here helps to train my brain to stay on the same track for extended periods of time. Do you suffer from the internet induced ADD? Do you have trouble concentrating? Do things like email, twitter and facebook distract you all the time? I can usually tune all of that out. Except my work email and phone of course – I can’t really ignore these, though sometimes I wish I could.

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14 Responses to Did the internet shorten your attention span?

  1. Ricardo INDIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I agree, great post. The next target now seems to be the social networks. Take a look at this post criticizing the media sensation against Facebook: http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view  /2498/2181

    I want to emphasize your point on “apple and oranges”. I think that more than showing their ignorance on the interwebs, these tools contributes to exacerbate them, in the case of these people. It’s all about the use you make of the tools at hand.

    To go back to your TV example, the device would certainly make you more stupid if you only watch low quality programs. Same for radios, books, and conversations. In conclusion, these are just mediums to transfer information; so the use you make of that information is what makes a difference.

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  2. Ricardo INDIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    ops, “these tools contribute”.

    I could write that comment a little better. I was in a hurry. :D

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  3. Anand UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    It’s one thing to question the common claim that the technology is “making us stupid”. I’m totally with you on the need for more hard data to support this claim.

    But the data you quote from Miller doesn’t really help, either. IQ is a pretty narrow measure, and many smarter people than me have articulated why it doesn’t make sense to use it as an objective measure of “intelligence”. (There *are* legitimate uses for the number, but they’re not as simple as the ways we tend to use it.)

    She also claims, “Each of us knows many more people and facts than our counterparts of 100 years ago”. I seriously doubt this — at least the part about facts. We may know more of certain *kinds* of facts, but we also know less of other kinds. What are the 10 most common edible plants within one mile of your house? When was the last full moon? Can you tie 30 different knots, and explain the different functions each one can serve?

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  4. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Anand: I think you missed the last sentence : “We have more information, but it isn’t necessarily more valuable information.” It’s hard to argue we don’t have to process much more information now than they (I wasn’t around at that time) had to some 100 years ago. News is everywhere, advertising can’t be avoided even if you want to, cellphones make us available to receive or give information most of the time,…

    How useful is knowing the 10 most common edible plants around your house when you have large food supplies available not 10 minutes away ? Is being able to tie 30 different knots more useful that knowing how to use a phone ? Usefulness of information depends on the time we live on. Sure, basics could be useful if something very bad happened, but as we are now it’s not.

    In fact, it could be argued that today knowing about Lindsay Lohan and Simon Cowell (I know neither of them…) is more useful than knowing a bit about Marie Curie or Lord Mountbatten. Which is the most likely topic of conversation, the latest singer/actor/politician or one of the scientific minds of our past ?

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Anand: I agree with @Zel on this. The questions you pose is useful knowledge if you are going camping, or are preparing for end of civilization. But how often would I use that information in my real life as a couch potato computer programmer?

    Why would I need to know about 10 most common edible plants around my house if I live in a walking distance to a supermarket that is stoked with food, and bunch of restaurants that serve cuisines from all over the world.

    Why would I need to know about knots? If I want to tie or fasten things together I can use those disposable plastic that you loop around, tighten and then cut off when you are done. Or superglue.

    And why would I need to know when was the last full moon? I mean, unless I’m planning a Werewolf related prank I really wouldn’t need to know this. And if I wanted to know it, I could easily look it up.

    The thing is, that we all carry portable knowledge with us. We can easily google shit like that using our phone. 40 different knots? No problem!

    We don’t really need to remember these kinds of facts. These days we are geared more towards storing meta-information – facts about where too look up other facts.

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  6. Anand UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    @Luke Maciak & @Zel: Let me be clear. I was NOT trying to argue that we’d all be better off if we threw away our laptops and learned how to make fire by friction. Obviously, certain facts are more or less valuable depending on context.

    My point was simply that I don’t think that the *amount* of raw information an individual person has / processes has changed very much. I think that when people say that, they are invariably categorizing certain kinds of facts as “information”, and other kinds of facts as “extraneous noise”.

    Now, it may be true that, as whole, our society’s store of raw information might be larger than it was before. (I mean… six billion brains is a lot more storage space.) But I don’t think that necessarily means we’re any smarter than we used to be.

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  7. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m a scientist, technologist and a geek at heart – I need data. Not statistics, not surveys, not anecdotes. I need data collected in formal double blind studies run multiple times with different population samples in different conditions to rule out simple correlations. Until we have that I will dismiss the “technology is making us stupid” rants are Luddite fear mongering.

    Unfortunately, you’re not going to get that type of data. How would you do double blind studies like that? Block half the participants from any media for a year or more? Seems unlikely you’ll get a sample of sufficient size. Moreover, how do you do double blind? There is no sufficiently convincing fake internet you could give half the participants.

    While anecdotes are clearly insufficient, sometimes we just can’t get the data we’d like, and we have to make decisions on what we have. This isn’t an ideal world. You can choose to dismiss anyone who thinks differently as a “luddite” but I’d suggest that says as much about your willingness to consider the available information as it does about their willingness to jump to stupid conclusions.

    Technology is most certainly not making us stupid.

    I suspect you’re right, but much of that atlantic article rang true with me. My attention span is shorter. My ability to concentrate has decreased. I can’t sit down and read through a book anymore without skimming or becoming distracted. I remember far less than I used to, now I simply know how to look it up. Leaving aside whether or not that’s a good thing (I’d argue it isn’t), I’m not sure technology is the cause, I don’t know what is causing it. Maybe increased input sources and workloads are the problem. Maybe it is just me getting older. But maybe technology is the problem, I’m not crossing it off the list.

    You may be interested to know the atlantic ran a rebuttal of sorts to the Carr article. The new article basically argues we aren’t capable of effectively dealing with the amount of information we’re surrounded by, and that services like google are part of the solution to the problem not the cause.

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  8. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Sorry that first paragraph was supposed to be a quote, and the actual quote isn’t me quoting myself, it is me quoting the post.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @jambarama: You know, that’s a good point. Obtaining this type of evidence would probably be difficult. I guess my reaction represents the other side of the coin:

    Whenever I see media suggesting that X causes Y I immediately assume that this is yet another case of correlation vs. causation confusion. Too many times I have seen a news story unfold like this:

    Scientific paper: There is a strong correlation between X and Y but it is too early to tell whether or not X actually results in Y.

    Scientific press: New study suggests that X may possibly cause Y

    Mainstream press: Strong evidence suggests that X causes Y

    Mainstream TV: Scientists warn that X causes Y

    Fox News: Mass chaos and panic erupts when scientists prove that X causes Y. Your life may be in danger. Tune in at 11 as we cover this shocking revelation.

    You might be right. Perhaps we are simply adapting to our technology. For example, why hang on to random bits of data when each of us carries the sum of human knowledge in their pocket (ie. internet enabled phone + Google). Since we can look stuff up so easily, we simply no longer need to rely that much on memory. We prioritize remembering other stuff instead.

    Also, we can’t rule out the realities of modern office environment on attention span. Most office workers these days are expected to balance their daily tasks, answer the phone and respond to email in a timely manner. And since these days we work with electronic data, employers expect much shorter response times. Back in the day when an average employee did not have a phone or a computer on the desk they had much less interruptions. Also, each task took much longer since it had to be done manually.

    These days our work flow is constantly interrupted by barrage of emails and phone calls which require instant reaction, and therefore constant context switching.

    So if I was to blame anything for shortening of attention span, I would blame that rather than the internet itself. After all, during an average week we spend solid 8 hours a day at work, and have only a fraction of that time to just browse the web and bulshit around on the interwebs.

    Still, I don’t really think my attention span is shorter these days.

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  10. chris GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    too long; didn’t read.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @chris: You are doing it wrong. You should have said:

    TLDR

    No one who posts TLDR has the attention span to actually type the whole thing out. ;)

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  12. chris GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    i was trying to take it easy on your possibly clueless audience. ;)

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  13. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I would contend that Internet does not alter our minds more than the pocket calculators of 80’s did. We mostly modified (at least some of us) our way of thinking and processing information. We learned to learn and to find information on line, instead of memorizing its place in libraries, books and other physical supports.

    Is our attention span modified? Probably a bit. Nobody maintains his/her attention for an hour or more any more. When I was a kid, it was expecting from me for at least two hours (a standard high school course in France at the time). Researchers tell us nowadays that a teenager can’t do it for more than 45 minutes. Is it that today’s teenagers have a worse attention span than my fellow pupils then? I doubt it.

    I think that the school system and society at the time didn’t care about our attention span at all and concentrated more on discipline. Result: we were swallowing the 2 hours, our attention was probably ok for 1 hour and as a result we probably reminded a third of the course. Good pupils would catch on at home while bad ones (or ones with less supportive parents) would fail or lag behind. I believe that our attention span is the same nowadays, but now there are researchers interested in it and trying to measure it…

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @chris: Nah, my audience tends to be very clueful. :)

    @Alphast: Very good point. Perhaps our attention spans are not changing at all – we just are much better (and more interested in) measuring it now.

    I mean, back in the day no one even knew about disorders such as ADD/ADHD and kids who could not pay attention were simply whacked with a yard stick.

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