Technology was supposed to set us free, to liberate us from mundane, time-consuming tasks so we could do great things, think great thoughts, solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Instead, our kids have been liberated to perform even more mundane, time-consuming tasks (including the average 3,339 text messages they send and receive each month — or more than a hundred per day). They have an average of 440 friends apiece on Facebook. Do you know how long it takes to check in on 440 friends?
THE INTERNET WORLD is big and brash and colorful and infinitely engaging, and books are black and white and just sit there. If you were a kid, which would you rather hang out with? And yet the history of human civilization, our history, has been a process of learning to tune out precisely what attracts us to the Internet. Watch a bird at a feeder, and you’ll see what nature instills in living creatures: a constant awareness of any flicker of change that might spell doom. Scientists call this “bottom-up attention,” according to Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. “Everyone has had it happen,” he says. “You’re crossing the street, you see something in your peripheral vision, and you orient toward it before you’re even conscious that it’s happened. That’s important for survival.” What humans have developed that differentiates us is “top-down attention,” where we actively choose what we’ll pay attention to.
Both kinds of attention are needed, and we naturally switch back and forth between them. But Western civilization is built on literacy, which is a top-down model. The shift from oral tradition to writing that took place sometime around 4,000 B.C. literally changed the way we think. Over the centuries, reading evolved from a group activity — heroic tales shared around the hearth on cold nights — to a solitary one, and writing from a practical reckoning of laws and items of trade to an exploration of the human condition. As Maggie Jackson explains in Distracted, her treatise on our current “erosion of attention,” writing created a “pause -button” for the avalanche of spoken language: When we could take time to study the words on a page — when we could read deeply — we began to think more deeply.
Reading is highly unnatural in that it requires us to filter out distractions and focus our attention on a single task. “If the brain had an unlimited capacity to process information,” says Chatterjee, “you wouldn’t need an attentional system.” But a study at Stanford last year led by professor Clifford Nass, who specializes in human/computer interaction, showed that heavy users of multi-media “have a very hard time filtering out distracting information,” Chatterjee says. “The phone rings, and their behavior is driven by that distraction.” When heavy users have to consciously decide what to devote their top-down attention to, they can’t. They’re in thrall to their machines.