Paying Attention in the Digital Age

Device_pileThere is an issue, which may or may not be a problem for universities around the world, but that is certainly gaining a lot of attention in Britain and the United States—namely, attention itself.

Students increasingly arrive at university having grown up in a world in which their habits of study are heavily influenced by new media. They are used to media acting as a continuous stream of content that is more like a river of images than a page of text. According to one account, that means much shorter attention spans, much greater attention to visual modes of understanding, greater modulation of time, more and more reliance on interfaces, and so on. (See, most recently, Stephen Apkon’s The Age of the Image.)

Now, I think it is true that our students have become accustomed to being presented with bite-size chunks of information in ways that can leave their instructors concerned and frustrated about their ability to read in depth. See just the latest story in The Chronicle about the reading habits and use of social media by students. Again, look at the way in which news is presented on younger-demographic sites like Vice to see how increasingly entertainment and news are mixed together in ways that are, well, entertaining but also often profoundly suspect in the way that they encourage readers to see the world as a resource to be consumed rather than as a responsibility. (Much of the same could be said about many newspapers.)

But does all this presage the death of Western civilization? I doubt it, and for three main reasons.

To begin with, all of this can be seen as a transition to new modes of literacy, as Apkon points out. Like all such transitions, something is gained and something is lost. One of my favorite books is M. T. Clanchy’s From Memory to Written Record in which he documents the long and involved history of the transition from oral tradition to literacy in England and the ways in which the participants had to forge new senses of what was real and reputable, material and immaterial.

Then, there is the issue that there is simply more material available than it is humanly possible to read or otherwise take in anyway. The number of documents in the world has expanded exponentially, and it may be that a certain kind of grazing behavior is the only way to deal with the vast profusion of sources that are now available. There are at least 14 billion pages on the Web, 155.3 million items in the Library of Congress, of which 35 million are books, and 150 million items in the British Library—and that is before we get to the new Digital Public Library of America. So the rise of search engines to trawl all this material can hardly be counted as a metaphysical threat, as some commentators would have it.

Lastly, it is possible to derive new modes of interrogation. I am struck by the effort going into producing new means of summarizing information and comment, although, like many, I am also concerned that the associated personalization of this information can narrow horizons. But perhaps, in time, we will be able to get the balance right so that the world can still impinge in unexpected ways.

Whatever the case, universities and academics can intervene. So far as their own practices are concerned there are several efforts to produce search engines which can trawl material in much more specific and useful ways and code for depth of content rather than quasi-commercial imperatives. Then there is the fact that academics are among those who have some of the best practical and theoretical grasp of the new visual grammar that is now unfolding, and have the ability to do things about it. Finally, many academics have real influence—and responsibility—in this new world and can use it accordingly. For example, the British scientist and TV personality Brian Cox gets significantly more searches on some days than the (large) university in which he is based.

So we can expect more elegies to old ways of doing things. But we need to balance them out with practical strategies that acknowledge new ways of doing things while retaining a commitment to contemplation and rigor—and concentrated attention—in our teaching and research.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia photo by Jeremy Keith]

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