There's an interesting re-surfacing of the debate about whether going digital is making us dumber, or at the very least reducing our concentration span, making us cyber butterflies.
On one of my blogs I monitor what visitors do when they arrive. Many alight on a post from a Google search, and then, less than a minute later, they have departed on a link they have found on my blog. I've never thought of that in the light of reduced attention span. I've always thought it was a sign that they had found what they were looking for. Google Analytics tells me that even on this blog, the average visitor spend only 1:03 minutes before they bounce off somewhere else. Can they, I ask, get the meaning of my post in that time?
Critics of Twitter, who are invariably not persisent users, deride the fact that tweets have a 140 character limit. After all, what of import can you say in such a short space? They obviously don't understand the lengths you have to go to in reducing your message to the 140 character limit and yet still get your meaning across. Most of us can read 140 characters in 10 seconds or less.
In a recent article in The Age, How the internet makes us stupid, Nicholas Carr writes "A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers." He's writing a new book The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, and he says he was stimulated to write the book after realising his own capacity to focus and concentrate was changing. He attributes it to some sort of internet addiction. [Factors like advancing age, eyesight, and pressures of work crop up in my mind.]
Of course there are those who object strongly to this point of view. Computer World echoes "Digital Doesn't mean Dumb. It’s a myth that we have all become Twitter-brained visual grazers with no appetite for prose."
PC Advisor makes a similar point, claiming that It’s a myth that we have all become Twitter-brained visual grazers with no appetite for prose. I’m with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who said: “There is no such thing as an attention span. People have infinite attention if you are entertaining them.” The article goes on to claim that good digital design helps us locate what we want to know more quickly.
It all reminds me a bit of the debate between the skim-readers and the rest. Those of us who can't skim-read a book for any length of time claim that those who do must miss a lot of meaning and nuance.
I'm more inclined to think that the pressures we are under to cope with information overload, and at the same time appear to be on top of it all, means that we have to be able to flit like cyber butterflies. The important this is to be able to recognise the good oil when we've found it, and to be able to think deeply about the issues.
That's why information literacy is so critical in education, more than ever before. Our students have to be taught to skim, to recognise, to select, and then dwell when needed.