I don’t know about you, but my attention span seems to be decreasing with each passing year.
I have been trying for about a month to finish the latest Jonathan Franzen novel, “Freedom” (The New York Times Book Review calls it a “masterpiece” — I heartily agree), but as much as I love the book, I find myself very easily distracted and unable to focus for periods long enough to experience the “zone” — total immersion in the material — which has been for me one of the great joys of reading.
I am far from being the first to make this self-observation.
Earlier this year, Nicholas Carr published his newest book, The Shallows, in which he argues, quite persuasively, that the Internet, specifically — and technology, in general –is re-wiring our brains, inducing only superficial understanding.
Does that mean we’re getting stupid?
When Carr first published his provocative idea in a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly magazine in the summer of 2008: “Is Google Making us Stupid?” he was challenged by the likes of futurist James Cascio, and others, like Stephen Johnson, who think about the impacts of technology on humans.
They argue that “the increasing complexity and range of media we engage with have, over the past century, made us smarter, rather than dumber, by providing a form of cognitive calisthenics.”
I love the way that sounds, “cognitive calisthenics,” almost as though surfing the Internet and checking one’s BlackBerry and downloading magazines onto a Kindle were strength- and endurance-training exercises for the mind.
But, I have to say, spending a little bit of time with The New York Times earlier this summer didn’t provide me with much support for the we’re-getting-smarter crowd’s view.
And here’s where the rubber meets the road — self assessment.
I took this online test to measure my ability to focus and my ability to switch quickly between tasks. As an inveterate multi-tasker, I was certain of my mastery of both. And then I got the results:
They show that I am, indeed, a high multi-tasker — and this is really not such a good thing: I am more easily distracted — and I am slower at switching between tasks — than those who multi-task less.
Does that mean I’m getting stupid? I can’t say.
But it does make me want to put away my keyboard, turn off my BlackBerry and get back to finishing that book.