Thursday, June 10, 2010

Those pesky kids and their internets

I couldn't help but chuckle at this part of a post over at Crooked Timber about a piece in the New York Times about how the internet is negatively affecting people's attention spans:

I can’t help imagining some grouchy old-timer saying something like “Damn cave paintings. In my day, we told stories about the sacred mammoth hunt, and you really had to use your imagination. Kids these days just want to stare at a wall all night. No wonder they can’t throw a spear straight”.


Maju said...

Laughs. :D

Anyhow I'd relate TV and by extension computers with something more dynamic, somewhat like staring at the fire while it dances, a visual experience that implies something being active in front of you, not just static. Dance, theater... could be other valid comparisons but, as in such small familiar communities, you have direct access to become the performer yourself (in fact they tend to be quite participative events) the passivity is reduced.

Also a key difference between computers and TV is that you are not just passive but, in fact, you can actually not just navigate to an almost infinite series of sites (little worlds on their own right) but be a creative active part of them. That's specially true of massive multiplayer online games, which become true global agoras of more or less talented performers, often playing to hunt and fight, something that is seldom available in our modern urban lifestyle.

Anyhow, the attention span thing is something that I would tend to agree with: nowadays, even the intellectuals, read mostly articles and not so much anymore whole books, which in the recent past were almost the only source of knowledge.

Nowadays, you can often click a few times and get to almost the exact article addressing the exact matter you were interested about... and you can leave context for maybe another day... again a couple of clicks away from your chair surely.

The main problem anyhow is maybe that computers and the Internet offer the possibility of doing too many exciting things without almost doing any physical activity... and that's much more harmful. Clearly so.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Maju -
you make some good points, and I'm with you on computers at least fostering some kind of interactivity as opposed to TV-induced passivity.

I don't know how I feel about what reading articles vs. books says about attention span, however... I think that articles are just an better medium to quickly get ideas out there than books, which often take years to produce, from the beginning to the end of the writing and editing process. It may also be that much modern research is more 'encapsulated' than research in the past was. Add to that the heavy pressures to publish (and publish quickly in high impact venues) among modern academics, and you've got what seems to me a solid explanation for the current state of knowledge dissemination. To come full circle, though, I think that the internet has certainly allowed this phenomenon to become a runaway one... and so constrained did many people feel by the length of the editorial process that we now have many academics publishing blogs in which instant reactions to papers can be published, even before these are 'officially' published in journals and the like (as is the case in the Callao study above... it doesn't have an assigned issue or page numbers in JHE yet!).

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

The NY Times also published a follow-up editorial by Steven Pinker arguing that technology is not, in fact, adversely affecting people's ability to concentrate in the modern age. It's a good read, and you can find it here.

Maju said...

Makes sense, I guess.

My worries are not about aboundance of intellectual resources or fragmentation of format (sometimes, specially when you are learning something new, you probably need a concentrated format: not dense but complete enough) nor about fast reading (the quote of Woody Allen, taken other than as a joke, would mean he was not reading at all - I've been reading superfast since I was a tender kid and works very well in fact - at least for my kind of brain).

What worries me is that:

1. You don't do any exercise while at the PC which, in addition, is quite unergonomic.

2. Twitter is still dumb. You can't really say anything of value in 2-3 lines unless it includes a link to a better resource. It's a mere telegraph, rather than anything of use. That part of the Net I really don't understand at all.