Does the World Wide Web dumb is down to much to read is an article exploring the idea that we have too many distractions and that as a result we are unable to focus. Yesterday I wrote about blogging rather than writing twitter threads and this article goes some way to exploring the same theme.
The first thing I would look at is the quality of writing and the quality of information. Are we reading articles that are clickbait, that have little content of substance and being little of value? Are we reading a guardian long read article that has been researched over days, weeks or months? Are we in the living room with family around providing us with distractions or are we in bed reading a book before sleep?
When I was at a conference there were four clusters of people. One group were outside talking, another were in the common room and then two of us were walking around and talking about nothing and everything at once. I bring it up because on the top bunk in one room I saw someone reading a book as we talked on the bottom bunk.
I also saw him reading in the lunch room and at least one other people. Rather than join in and enjoy the distractions of being at a conference he was in his own world reading a book.
I am in my own world as I write this blog post. I am sitting in my living room with the balcony door open so that fresh air can come in. I am writing this on my phone because the computer was updating its OS.
Reading and writing take courage. For a period of time you need to decide that you don’t want to read the constant streams from twitter and Facebook. You decide that you’re content in the moment. There are no external inputs.
When I lived in Weymouth I knew everyone that worked in bars, shops etc. I would spend hours a day out in the center trying to find people to spend time with. Paradoxically I also read a lot. I think this is when I read all but one of Kundera’s books. I also read quite a few thick books of fiction, including Lord Of The Rings.
For me the distraction of the World Wide Web has always been to find new technology and innovations but it has also been about finding friendships because, as an introvert socialising in person can be lonelier than solitude. The extroverts speak and we go into passive listening mode.
This is relevant because if we speak about the dumbing down of society we must also look at what we want to get from our distractions. In my case I want to meet new people and establish new friendships that would make a road, train or plane trip worthwhile. For years now I haven’t found this to work via social media so the “always distracted” occurrence is gone. It frees up time to work on projects such as this blog, to walk, to hike, to watch television series, to look for work, to volunteer at events and live in the moment and finally to watch YouTube content and tv series online.
We could say that we are becoming too stupid for the long form but look at the state of films. Back in the early 2000s I went to see a film every few days. After nine months of this I knew the film formulas so well that I lost interest. When I am alone I never watch films. When I am with female company I almost never finish the film.
It is not that I can’t focus for an hour and a half. It’s that the content is so mediocre. The films have no story and we feel no empathy for the characters so the allure of watching these films is gone.
We should also think about marketing when discussing the increasing idiocy of people. Marketing wants us to be gullible. Advertisers and public relations professionals want us to be interested in something only long enough to purchase the product. They don’t care about the environmental impact and social cost. For the first two years twitter and Facebook were excellent for networking and establishing new friendships. That’s why they were such compelling distractions back then.
We say that people are less focused than ever and that they are being dumbed down but then look at PVRs, Netflix, Amazon prime and more. We got so angry with all the adverts that we stopped watching over the air television because we no longer wanted to waste time being forced to see the same five to ten adverts every ten minutes. We are the ones reducing the distractions.
Related to this I would also look at binge watching culture. If you watch one or two episodes a night you’re going to be more focused than if you spend a day watching an entire season. When it’s television we call it bingeing. If we had a book we would call it “engrossing”. It wouldn’t be vilified.
The point is that if you’re reading a book you can’t check for tweets or scroll through Instagram because to stop looking at the page is to break the stream of consciousness. With TV series you can tweet, check e-mails and more. It’s vidzac or some other silly marketing term. It’s playing in the foreground until we get distracted and then it’s background noise.
We shouldn’t discount the lowest common denominator when speaking about intelligence and attention. Tenk.fr and curiositystream are documentary video networks. YouTube has plenty of intellectual content for those that are looking for it. The content with the most views is the content that algorithms are pushing on us but this does not mean that is the content that people wanted to view. The trap of the lowest common denominator is that it over-represents distractions whilst making intelligent content invisible.
If we went back to chronological timelines twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networks would paint a different image of the society we live in. Emotion would be replaced by intellect and with this intellect conviviality and intelligent discourse would re-emerge. We would see that intelligence is not declining.