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Cyberspace Sophists

There seems to be no stopping the flow of articles claiming that cyberspace  is making us stupid. The latest is Ruth Marcus’ “Cyberspace Dunderheads”, which is the usual story of reduced attention spans with a dash of lowered empathy thrown in. There is probably a fair amount of evidence to support both of these claims, though the argument that lowered student empathy scores occurred after the introduction of smartphones  kind of screams “Post hoc!” The problem is that cyberspace is big enough to find evidence to support pretty much any claim you want.

Let’s leave empathy aside; it’s a tricky subject, and as one commentator on the article pointed out, Marcus seems uncertain about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Attention span is at least easily quantifiable. There is also an intuitive appeal to Marcus’ observations:

Once upon a time, which is to say before the advent of the Internet, my work as a journalist involved reading documents, making phone calls, attending events. Turning to the keyboard, or the screen, was the end of the assembly line. Now, it seems, it is the totality: I spend hours skittering across the virtual surface of the Web, flitting from place to place, never resting for very long. I read a few sentences—or write a few—and my hand twitches, like an alcoholic reaching for the bottle, toward the BlackBerry.

Well, most of us have been there. But that kind of information grazing is just one thing we do in cyberspace. We also, especially if we are academics or technical workers, spend hours intensively researching one subject. When I am online trying to find a suitable text to put in my ENG 101 course or solve a problem with our Moodle service, I experience the same sustained concentration normally associated with professors poring over dusty tomes or scribbling furiously in notebooks. (Note to younger readers: as well as a kind of a computer, the word “notebook” can also refer to a bound collection of small sheets of paper.) Cyberspace allows us to spread our attention very widely, but it also allows us to focus it intensely, and do so for long periods of time. Ask any hardcore gamer. Are the people who claim that the Internet is shortening our attention span the same people who complain about kids playing World of Warcraft for eight hours at a stretch?

Related to the supposed decline of our attention span is the perennial complaint that young people these days don’t read books. I remember this from the 1970s, though of course they didn’t blame the Internet in those days (as far as I remember the culprits were TV series and 45 rpm records). If no one is reading books any more, why do I see  Harry Potter everywhere? Do all these Potters just materialise in our world without being read, only to vanish as mysteriously as they came? And what about Dan Brown? In the first week after it was published, The Lost Symbol sold half a million copies in the UK alone, making it the fastest-selling adult book ever (though that is largely because when equally eagerly anticipated books came out in the past, there were no online booksellers). Let’s not forget that (a) Dan Brown is not the kind of author you buy because he looks good on your shelves, and (b) this was a weighty hardcover book retailing at about twenty pounds. In other words, it’s not something that people would buy and then not read because they got distracted by their Blackberries.  And while we’re talking about mobile devices, if they sap our concentration so much, how come people are using them to read books?

As final observation, I should mention that while writing this I was distracted several times; however, none of these had anything to do with the Internet and all of them had something to do with my wife, who is not a piece of technology.

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