Thoughts of an East Coast Liberal

Quite often people point at me and laugh because I blog and twitter and even engage with friends on Facebook or Linkedin.
Mainly, I suspect, their derision is based on the idea that the internet is a bad thing - a medium inferior to say, the novel or newspapers, where the traditional literary narrative. And by the way I am one of the most hungry consumers of books among my peers and currently have 15 books stacked at my bedside waiting to be read.
Given the wealth of information available in the web I am always stunned by the accusation that internet has cut our attention spans, dumbed us down and reduced the literary narrative to text-speak - LOL.
So I was cheered to come across Clay Shirky’s interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, is one of the brainiest people on the planet who deftly anwers the question - is the web shortening attention spans? Here it is:

You know, "Life was better when I was younger" is always an acceptable narrative. Right? And so for anybody who was brought up genuflecting to the literary culture and the virtues of reading Tolstoy - and essentially Tolstoy is a trope in these things, War and Peace is the longest novel in the sort of Euro-centric canon - you could always make the argument that the present is worse than the past by simply pointing to the virtues of the past. And so, what the Web does is that it does what all amateur increases do, which is it decreases the average quality of what’s available. It is exactly, precisely, the complaint made about the printing press. So, the only thing surprising about the Web, in a way, is that it’s been a long time since we’ve had a medium that increased the amount of production of written material this dramatically.
But people made the same complaint about comic books, they made the same complaint about paperbacks, and they made the same complaint about the vulgarity of the printing press. Whenever you let more people in, things get vulgar by definition. And people who benefited under the old system or who dislike or distrust vulgarity as a process always have room to complain. But, the interesting thing is, when you say so many people believe this, in fact almost no one believes this, right? There’s a tiny, tiny slice of the chattering classes for whom “Life was better when I was younger” is an acceptable complaint to make, and they have these little conferences or whatever and agree with one another about that phenomenon. But when you look at the actual use of the Web, it is through the roof. And it has continued in an unbroken growth from the early ’90s until now. So, in fact, almost everybody thinks it’s a good idea because they’re embracing it and they’re experimenting with it and they don’t really care what we think.
And when I say “we,” I mean—I am a member of the Chardonnay-swilling East Coast liberal media elite. But I also recognize that anything I might have to say about the utility of the media actually isn’t going to influence whether or not people are going to adopt this. And so once you get out of the idea that basically the previous avatars of the cultural good, and the world that George W.S. Trow chronicled so beautifully Within the Context of No Context—once you grasp that those people are powerless to that effect, powerless with regard to the adoption curve—the question really becomes, “How do you point out an effect where something has been damaged?” And that’s where I think a lot of this conversation about reading breaks down, because if you assume that reading Tolstoy is an a priori good, your world crumbled in 1970. And it’s hard to point to the Web as responsible for any of that because that was a done deal for some time.
If you want to point to more proximate harms, it would be very hard to argue, for example, that innovation, inventiveness, new intellectual discoveries had slowed as a result of the Internet, and so people are left with these kind of mealy-mouth cultural critiques, because nostalgia becomes the only bulwark against change. The actual effects of making more information available to more people have been enormously beneficial to society, yet not to the intellectual gatekeepers in the generation in which that change happened.


Paul Mackenzie Ross said...

Those who deride the use of blogs, Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter are simply trumpeting their own ignorance. I used to be anti-mobile phone myself; it was once IMO the tool of egotistical business people and drug-dealers. Yes, I was ignorant then and now that phones are available for the masses ("free" N95/iPhone 3G if you sign your soul up for an 18 month contract) I'm a mobile phone fan. So to say "Do not judge a man until you walk two moons in his moccasins." certainly applies here :)

As for Clay Shirky answering the question "is the web shortening attention spans?" Good grief, Mr Shirky, stay on track would you? Very clever he may be but he certainly knows how to go round the houses, vaguely touch upon the point, and then veer off again. I just verified his ramble against a chick with a PhD; she agreed that he didn't really answer that question LOL

Personally I believe that the web does and can shorten attention spans. Why? because there is SO much there at your fingertips that it takes a considerable amount of self-discipline to stay on track. As a south-coast moderate the Internet is my spiritual home and more time is spent online than in the real world - right now there are 20 tabs open in Firefox; one being Twitter, another Facebook and another just one of my blogs. What the hell am I doing allowing myself to be so distracted whilst also sending links on Skype and checking my email both in the local email client and through Internet explorer?

So does the web shorten attention spans? Yes, the web does shorten our attention spans if we let it. Does the web dumb us down? No, of course not, but dumb people are allowed to use the Internet. Is the English language going out of the window because of the web? Yes & no. We love our shorthand so we'll LOL if we want to but there are certainly places where English gets mauled and proliferated.

Now I'll finish off reading the WHOLE of the Clay Shirky interview... I got distracted by the blogging.

Ian Green said...

I also like the phrase - you never cross the same river twice. But yes I take your point Paul.
One the question of shortening attention spans and dumbing down, I have seen my son spend four hours on the internet research the rise of National Socialism - reading 20,000 word essays for source material so I am not sure I agree.
In the end it all comes down to content - enjoy the Shirky article.


Tom Craik said...

Hi Ian,

Sorry to comment on an old post, but I just started my blog yesterday and found this interesting. So, to bring a young man’s perspective to the debate…

I would have to say that the internet has cut some peoples attention spans, but that those who make the accusation that it has dumbed down society are clearly in the wrong.

Like you I consume books at an alarming rate and have a huge backlog of them waiting to be read, but I often find myself stopping after every chapter to see what everyone else is up to on social networking sites. So yes it does shorten my attention span. However, I see this as a natural consequence of information overload, and a small price to pay for what is ultimately a more well read and better informed public.

Would I be better off immersing myself in ‘War and Peace’ for days without interruption or taking the often partisan views of the press on face value, or would I get a richer experience discussing these things online? The fact is that the collective consciousness of the online world offers people something that traditional narrative can’t: namely interaction and debate.

The internet, whatever you say about the average quality of information, has inspired people to read and seek knowledge. People who would otherwise be turned off by the thought of books and papers are reading, and increasingly publishing online. Those who have a natural thirst for knowledge simply supplement their time reading books with online activity.

It’s always nice to hear Clay Shirky’s take on things, but he does draw this one out a bit. Great read nonetheless.

Paul Mackenzie Ross said...

Ian, your son is a great example of focused use of the Internet; I too, as a designer, writer, researcher & blogger can also get into the groove for hours when I need to. My Mrs is another Internet junkie who has to stay focused for hours/days/weeks on web-based projects. Nearly all the developers & designers I know are constantly offline or forever unavailable in Skype because the distraction of easy access can put them off their flow.

These are all everyday examples of people who know they can be distracted and do not wish to be, hence they actually work against the potential of shortened attention spans, because they know it can happen. All good examples on the side of indicating that the web does NOT shorten our attention spans :)

On the other hand Internet generation don't have the attention span for jury duty, warns Lord Chief Justice from the Daily Mail back in November 2008 and back in 2002 Dr Ted Selker, Director of the Context Aware Computing Lab at MIT, spoke of diminishing attention spans in an interview with the BBC.

So it's probably 50/50 - Some will use the tools well and others will continue to jump around - an awareness of the possibilities of attention deficit and discipline can guard against it :)

Ian Green said...

Hi Paul,

Couldn't agree more - it's all about engagement. My children terrify with their alacrity!