The Internet Made Me Lose My Attention Span… But Not Really

I have a confession. I only read a book a week these days; six years ago I used to consume a book a day for pleasure, excluding the reading I was assigned by other people.

It’s all changed because of the internet.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

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Over the past few years I’ve noticed that what I do for fun has changed. I’ve always enjoyed discovering new things from an early age. Information is a valuable commodity and I liked (and still like) wowing people with small, insignificant facts or engaging in lengthy conversations about this or that particular writer. No book was safe – for a short time I had virtually memorised all the flow charts in our battered, home copy of a family medical textbook. I would curl up on my bed inventing fictional ailments to test if I could remember what symptoms I could say yes to without ending at a red box telling me to immediately call the emergency services. I don’t do that any more. Instead I’m on the internet jumping from article to video to forum to obscure Wikipedia page.

There have been so many scare articles over the time in which I’ve shifted away from books. Beware, they all shriek, the internet is destroying the concentration span of your children! Soon all that will be left of modern culture will be a few tweets! Everything else will be too taxing on their underused minds! And we do buy that argument because a lot of us notice how we rarely read all the way to the end of the page, and how we prefer doodles and snappy lines to long reels of text.

I’m not one of those pessimists that say the internet is destroying people. After all, I had a free reign on my internet usage at university but could still sit through hundreds of pages of reading when it came down to it. Realistically those of us in the world that can read and have the opportunity to will be able to cope with a book if we were made to read one. Like riding a bike, the skill never truly drifts away from us. It is our satisfaction that can and has shifted.

Once upon a time I sat entranced for hours with a good paperback. Now I’ll stop every 10/15 minutes or so to write down an interesting train of thought  – something to look up later or write down. I used to be ashamed of this trend as I thought it meant I had become flighty and would rapidly become less intelligent. In fact, like most people who age, I’ve learnt more, but not only that – I’ve learnt proportionally more each year. Modern technology means that we’ve become used to the idea of always learning, always striving for ways to put information into practice. If I want to learn about something I no longer need be a passive recipient; when I am presented with a news item I can look up background information if I want to developed a deeper and more nuanced position, or find the definition of every single word I’m even just 1% unsure about. Because accessing information on technology takes very little time and is incredibly easy, the threshold of what is acceptable ignorance is lower. Consequently it becomes harder to calmly sit through something knowing that you’re missing part of the larger picture.

Books are now refocused as a nice past-time, a way of slowing everything down with a level of focus akin to meditation. They are not the main source of knowledge. We can learn faster along with learning more perspectives on the internet.

Elon Musk, who will likely be remember as the visionary of our time, said in a discussion with Khan Academy “the more you can gamify the process of learning, the better”. The classical methods of learning are now just old.

The internet is affecting us all and we should be fascinated with the possibilities this means for the future.

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