Driven to Digital Distraction

There was an interesting book published recently about the relationship between modern lifestyles and shortening attention span. I’ve been saying (and observing) for some time that over-exposure to online games and other digital technology reduces attention span and the ability to engage in reflective thought. I’ve noticed it in myself and more worryingly observed it in my kids. But can we do anything about it?

In an interview with author and researcher Maggie Jackson, Wired magazine explores the possibility that our multi-tasking lifestyles have led to an institutionalised culture of distraction that damages the ability to concentrate and think creatively. Jackson reveals that there is sound research into how brain physiology behaves in response to multiple stimuli and activity overload. Humans are evolving to the new environment, but perhaps not in a good way, she suggests.

So what happens when today’s kids, who are growing up immersed in technology from a very early age, are called upon in the future to demonstrate complex deductive thought over extended periods at exam time or in a stressful work environment? Writing, planning, conversing and being artistically creative do not deliver the same instantaneous level of gratification that scoring points in an online battle quest does, for example. Will the next generation be damaged by early over-exposure to digital technology?

In many respects, digital technology has made the world smaller and more navigable. On the other hand, rewiring our behaviour can have an isolating effect. We are constantly looking for the next hit of endorphin that comes from a new email, a fresh Tweet or another enemy to slay in our favourite virtual world. But sometimes that buzz comes at a price to our real world relationships and creative power.

4 thoughts on “Driven to Digital Distraction

  1. Like it or not, that’s the reality, and things are only going to get more intense going into the future. When Hammurabi invented writing, people complained that it would result in people losing their ability to memorise long texts. It did, but the net gain was of far-reaching and unexpected proportions.

    It would be silly to try to turn back the tide like King Knut, but at the same time we need to equip ourselves and our children to adapt to the new reality. As a species, we’re excellent at making such adaptations, and I have no doubt that 500 years from now, with the assistance of computers, people will cope perfectly happily with what we now consider digital overload. They’ll laugh at us: “Did they really only ever do one thing at a time in those days? How did they cope?”

    It’s all about managing the signal-to-noise ratio, and the most successful people will excel at this.

  2. Good points. Humans will adapt.

    But technological change far outpaces social adaptation. Are high school students currently using laptops to write essays in exams? Are university students regularly attending lectures within virtual worlds? Arguably our legislators are way out of touch with the realities of technology and have failed to properly address privacy, piracy and the social effects of technological change.

    I’m very glad I had access to word processing software when it came time to write my thesis. But there will always be a place for reflective thinking and creative endeavours that do not directly involve technology. I hope our kids don’t lose those skills.

  3. Just as a postscript to this discussion, I was reading an article this morning about how Unitec in Auckland are experimenting with integrating mobile devices and “social software” into several course programmes. They tried to deploy PDAs initially but lack of wireless hotspot coverage and the bulk of the equipment led to low uptake by students. But they had more success with mobile phone technology apparently.

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