press[1] A couple of days ago, I looked at some articles suggesting that the Internet was having a deleterious effect on attention spans. Little did I know when I was writing them that I was buying into a chain of “new media” scares going all the way back to the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and beyond.

Slashdot links to an article in Slate that goes over the history of these fears. Psychologist Vaughan Bell writes:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

In the 16th century, it was the printing press. In the 18th century, newspapers (and the way they replaced the pulpit as a source of news). In the 19th century, public education was the bugaboo; in the 20th, radio, television, and finally computers. Looking at all the mental health warnings through the ages, it is a wonder we have any sanity left at all.

As Bell wrote, it is interesting how similar these concerns are. They all sounded reasonably scientific for the understanding of their day, just as the short-attention-span articles do now. I guess I can worry a lot less about the time I spend on-line now. My short attention span must be my own problem, not the Internet’s.


  1. Just because scare tactics are used to spread information doesn’t mean that the information is necessarily false. I think there’s a lot of evidence that the introduction of television caused later generations to read less. Fortunately, the Internet seems to be reversing that trend, but as far as attention spans are concerned, I can offer the anecdotal information that it is definitely harder for me to do in-depth reading after I’ve been skimming texts, whether those texts are online or offline. And I’ve heard this comment made by various writers, so you’re not alone in your concern about the effects of Internet browsing on attention spans.

  2. Since I can offer equal anecdotal evidence that I do not have trouble doing in-depth reading after I’ve been skimming texts, it should be clear why hard evidence is needed here. I think the fact that there is no hard evidence, especially after so many years, is evidence itself of an unsubstantiated phenomenon.

    People adapt to their surroundings… but they also have some control over that adaption. To suggest that our media is “forcing” us to have shorter attention spans is ignoring the power we have over our own minds to “exercise” and develop them as we see fit.

  3. Waring, long, rambling comment incoming.

    The lecturer in one of my lectures made a sort-of philosophy of science point that all observations are theory impregnated. He used the example that if Joe Shmoe was walking in a forest he would see a bunch of trees and plats and stuff. But if a trained biologist would walk down that same path in the same forest he would see a lot more, notice details the completely passed Joe Shmoe by. The amount of information the biologist got out of it would be much greater.

    Following along the same line of reasoning the amount of information I take in when I surf the web is much greater than the amount of information I get when walking in a forest. But then what about a hunter-gatherer from ten thousand years ago? The information he would get from waling in the forest would be far greater than what I would get. He has grown up in it, and for him to identify food and danger is life or death. My question then is: Is the information he gets from observing the forest less than what I get surfing the internet? The potential sources for information in a forest glade in the forest is immense, just like on the internet. Just try and list every perceivable, for the hunter gatherer, object in a forest glade! The limit would surely be his minds ability to process the information, just as it is with me surfing. We are both in a information overload situation. Me and that hunter-gatherer aren’t that different in circumstances from the rest of humanity. Might not the information overload be the normal state for humanity?

  4. Anecdotal evidence again:

    I grew up in front of the TV, literally. My family had it on from awakening to bedtime. Yet, I still grew up a heavy reader, and non-addicted to TV. I went without one for decades. I have one now, but only use it to watch occasional DVDs and LOST.

    I’m still in control of my media, in spite of the environment I grew up in.

    So, yes, scare tactics. Humans have large brains capable of processing a lot of info.

    Johan’s comment is *very* interesting.

  5. @Steve Jordan, I read your earlier comment about this, and all I can say is that I think you’re making the same mistake that you’re accusing me of making: You’re simplifying a complex issue.

    I don’t believe that all people have attention-span problems as a result of online browsing. I do believe that some people have such problems, and that these people aren’t a tiny minority. I’m hearing anecdotes about problems with compulsive Internet usage, not in small trickles, but in great waves in the online communities I belong to (which are just run-of-the-mill communities). As a result, I think it’s important to look at the various ways in which the Internet affects people.

    Likewise, I feel that it’s just too simplistic to say (as you did in your earlier post) “The thing about all these web services is that they can be shut off with the flick of a finger.” That’s a bit like saying to a wide group of people, several of whom are alcoholics, “You can stop drinking with the flick of a finger.” Different people have different responses to stimuli.

    What I see happening in the world today is that Internet addicts (I use the term “addicts” simply because it’s the common one) are treated very much the same way that alcoholics were at the beginning of the twentieth century: their problems are dismissed in an offhand manner by people who don’t have to deal with such issues in their own lives. I’m hoping that we can travel beyond that type of blithe dismissal of what has become a serious issue in some people’s lives.

    @Johan, I’m now filled with the amusing vision of a hunter-gatherer in information overload. Actually, I agree with you completely: I don’t think that the basic issues raised by online browsing are anything new. But I do think that, every time a new type of media comes along, new variations of the “information overload” problem come along.

  6. If you click over and read the article — which is excellent– you’ll find links to a number of studies showing that 1. Nicholas Carr is probably wrong and the Internet is not making us dumber and 2. TV is not so great and is associated with obesity and shrinking attention spans…

  7. @Dusk: I believe the problem here is treating a behavior the same as a chemically-influenced physiological dependency, like alcoholism or smoking… they are simply not the same. Implying that a learned habit is as hard to alter as a chemical dependency is demeaning the people who have those chemical dependencies.

    The use of the word “addicts” to describe internet users is simply wrong-headed. Using the traits and examples of one to deal with the other will not work, and in fact, will obscure the real problem and hold back the development of real solutions.

    We are talking about learned behaviors here. They can be un-learned. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it really is that simple an issue.

  8. Great article! I agree with its central message. I teach small children who have grown up with the internet being a reality of the world from before they were born, and the thing is, even if all the information is available, you don’t *expose* them to it all at once, the same way you don’t start with Fermat’s theorem when you set out to teach mathematics to a five-year-old. I’ve taught computer classes to children as young as 3, and I don’t tell them they can make a picture of anything they want–they would be paralyzed by the options. Instead, I tell them they can stamp the screen full of bunnies. Then when they get tired of that, I tell them they can stamp the screen full of butterflies. By the time they are tired of that, they usually arrive on their own at the epiphany that you can have bunnies AND butterflies at the same time, and that’s when you introduce some basic tools and show them how to make their own things.

  9. @Steve Jordan, I know that there is controversy over what exactly “Internet addiction” is and therefore what is the proper way to deal with that – that’s why I was careful in noting the terminology issue.

    “I’m not saying it’s easy, but it really is that simple an issue.”

    I’m afraid that sounds a bit contradictory to me. If it’s not necessarily easy to do, then it’s not a simple issue.

    What I was responding to was not your suggestion that certain techniques be used to stop compulsive Internet usage; what I was responding to was the way in which (in your earlier post) you seemed to be presenting compulsive usage of the Internet in terms of moral failures: “shortcomings” and “mental laziness” were the words you used.

    I’ve had a severe problem with compulsive Internet usage since 1997, and I’ve been fighting it daily since 1999. (Unfortunately, my professional work requires me to use the Internet, so I can’t just stay off the Internet.) I’ve made some progress in finding techniques to minimize my compulsive Internet usage, I’m happy to say. But it’s not a simple issue for me, nor for others I know who struggle with this problem; nor is it a matter of moral failings. It’s a matter of a deeply ingrained habit that is much harder for me (and others in my position) to kick than it is for the average person.

    To what extent compulsive usage of the Internet affects the average person is of interest to me, which is why I found the articles linked here to be fascinating (though not conclusive). We can disagree – as I suspect we will continue to – on the extent to which bringing about a solution to this problem is easy, but I hope that we can agree that, for some people, to varying degrees, a problem exists.

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