The future of paying attention

Nicholas Carr has a short piece in The Wall Street Journal reiterating his argument that the web is “turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.”  (More Carr here and here.)  Is the web uniquely full of “constant distractions and interruptions”?  Carr drives home his point with a comparison to another medium:

It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness.

Sure enough, one of the attributes of the book, as a technology, that I’ve lately come to appreciate is the focus it lends.  Being offline, and thus comparatively free of distraction, can be a technological benefit.

But in a companion WSJ piece, Clay Shirky takes issue with the comparison:

In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

The key, Shirky argues, is that we, as a society, learn how to make good use of new mediums.

The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.

This is probably not enough to satisfy Carr, who fears that we’ll trade in a superior set of habits and structures for an inferior one.  From the Carr piece:

[Developmental psychologist Patricia] Greenfield concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.

Carr’s prescription is less time online.  But I’m personally much more intrigued by the project of designing the habits, norms, technologies and social structures that allow us to maximize the benefits of the web.

This is what author and academic Howard Rheingold calls “infotention.” As he puts it:

Infotention is a word I came up with to describe the psycho-social-techno skill/tools we all need to find our way online today, a mind-machine combination of brain-powered attention skills with computer-powered information filters… Knowing what to pay attention to is a cognitive skill that steers and focuses the technical knowledge of how to find information worth your attention. More and more, knowing where to direct your attention involves a third element, together with your own attentional discipline and use of online power tools – other people.

Cognitive discipline + technology + a good network = the future of paying attention.  No one knows how well it will work, but few can deny the potential offered by the web.  Learning how to use it well is one of the greatest challenges we now face.

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