Our ADD culture

Robert Fulford’s Saturday column in the Post was a surprising endorsement of the Internet from the point of view of a literary journalist. Surprising because one would have expected someone as old and bibliocentric as Fulford to take a dim view of the new technology. On the other hand, he does point in that direction, referring to an item by Rebecca Traister at Salon titled “Stop the Internet, I want to get off!” This is mainly about a program called Freedom, a Mac application which turns off connectivity for those who need to work on their computers but can’t stop themselves from surfing, Twittering and otherwise wasting what is supposed to be working time. Traister has a nice take on the vortex of distraction:

And yet ... even as a comparative Luddite, I find myself bewitched, bewildered and deeply bothered by the number of minutes, hours, days I spend circling the online drain. As anyone who spends most working days staring at a computer screen knows, there is no such thing as sitting idle anymore. Those little desk toys they used to sell -- the plastic bird who teeters and totters until its beak finally dunks into the water glass -- are relics at this point. Like the notion of being unreachable at certain hours of the day or night, they are laughable reminders of a world long gone. Who would have the patience to wait for the beak to hit water? We'd all be hitting "reload."
. . .

Instead of watching plastic balances, we stare idly into a scrim of ever-updating images, words, videos, letter threads, some that calm us, some that raise our blood pressure, until finally the day is over, and we go home, log on, and do it again. Or at least I do.

This is right on the money. The whole cyber-experience appears to be deteriorating into a devils’ playground of nonstop diversion. The positives of instant access to supposedly edifying and relevant content out there are increasingly outweighed by a large scale destruction of attention spans. Old habits – at least among the literate – of reading for hours at a stretch look like they’re going the way of the printed newspaper. Eye-movement studies have discovered the notorious F-pattern used by many readers of Web pages: read the first two lines, scan halfway down, read another line, scan to the end. Done. Speed-browse the comments. Skip to the next article and then hare off on some totally random collection of links with no discernible thread at all the end of which you can’t even remember where you started.

Martin Amis’ the term “The Moronic Inferno” (originally intended as a description of the US) was evidently ahead of its time. But it’s not just the Net. The explosion of entertainment options, music movies and gaming seem to be creating for more and more people a new normal of 12 or more hours a day of screen time – a life of onscreen work, surfing, gaming, flat screens, iPods and smart phones embedded in an ADD culture which leaves less and less time for reflection and in which no individual cultural artefact really matters much because there is just such an overwhelming and incessant stream of output.

Paradoxically, the onslaught of electronic modernity seems to be undermining one of the key attributes needed to cope with it, namely the ability to focus, which is the common element to most high-skill, high-paying “top jobs.” The elite will no doubt continue to master the skills they need to attain the wealth they covet, include the skill of concentration. And they’ll teach them to their kids. So it isn’t inexorable doom: we’ll still have doctors and software architects. On the other hand the learning and studying capacities of the lower socio-economic 50% don’t look so likely to improve in the new attention-deficit world order, which may create widening social gaps in terms of both culture and life opportunities. The status of literacy, at least literary literacy, as opposed to being able to read a menu, as a defining element of middle class identity likewise seems to be facing long odds of coming through the intensifying cyberian gales. The consequences of this remain to be seen. But apart from the broader social implications, simply on a personal level, it is just not very appealing to spend more and more of one’s time in something like the mental state of a baboon on amphetamines, which is what the online experience tends to induce. If a little backlash is building up it’s not past time.