digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

Have I never known true concentration?

May 27, 2009 _ 15:05 / Digital Nation Team / comments (0)

Last night Rachel and Caitlin presented our Digital Nation project to a group of educators in Second Life, as part of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Speaker Series. The event took place on "ISTE Island", and it was quite interesting to watch. I filmed Rachel and Caitlin, novices in Second Life, as their avatars gave the presentation in front of a diverse digital audience, including one giant butterfly. We found out that "PowerPoint" isn't immune to glitches in the virtual world, but overall the event was a success.

Toward the end, when they were answering questions from the audience, the topic of concentration came up. Rachel made the point that, due to the unceasing demands that digital technology places on her attention, she finds it harder to concentrate now than she used to. And Rachel is certainly not alone. Nicholas Carr raised this same concern in his 2008 essay for The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?":

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going--so far as I can tell--but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

The discussion at the Second Life event centered on education. In this context, concerns about maintaining focus raised the question: will students brought up on ubiquitous digital technology ever know the deep concentration that Rachel and Nicholas Carr feel they have lost? I'm almost 25 years old, and, while I remember a time before the Internet, digital technology has been with me as long as I can remember. The old desktop computers I used in my childhood probably caused less distraction for me than smart phones, laptops and high-speed Internet access cause for children today. Nonetheless, I've been surrounded by much of this attention-sucking technology throughout my development.

So do I fall into the young group of "Digital Natives" that are somehow "different" due to the effects of digital technology? I'm not sure. But I do know that I don't feel like I've lost any ability to concentrate. If anything, I find it's easier for me to sit down and read a book today than it was five or 10 years ago. But maybe that's just a product of my maturing. It's not as if this ability to concentrate has come at a noticeable cost to my capacity for multitasking and the attention-splitting potential Digital Natives are known for. I enjoy chatting with many IM windows open and browsing the Web using 100+ tabs as much as the next Gen Y'er.

As I listened to Rachel lamenting her concentration loss, however, I wondered if it was actually me who was missing something. Perhaps the reason I felt no loss in my ability to focus was because I never had it to begin with, at least to the degree Rachel and Nick Carr were talking about. If I never had this ability of deep concentration, how would I know it was missing?

While this was unsettling when it first crossed my mind, it now seems rather silly. I can sit down to read a book or reflect deeply about an issue without reaching for my iPhone. What more could I want? Perhaps the loss of concentration that this older generation has lamented is simply a matter of aging. Or maybe it's just a trick of the mind. With all the potential digital distractions out there, it might be easy to feel you've lost your focus when really you haven't lost anything, you've simply chosen to organize your time in smaller chunks. In any case, in the face of the worry about distraction in the digital age, I present myself as evidence that all is not lost.

-Jeff

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posted February 2, 2010

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