What are we thinking? Cognition and attention in the digital age
Who are we becoming in the digital age? Don't look to your cell phone or laptop for answers.
To probe this question, we need to consider a much broader landscape than the gadgets that we now hold near and dear - and look to as cognitive appendages. Instead, turn back the clock a century, even two, and you'll already begin to see a world of shattered distance, virtual relations, mediated experience. I once stumbled upon a riveting novel called Wired Love about virtual relations - published in 1880. The book fictionalized the affairs of telegraph operators, falling in love in code. Long ago, the advent of the railroad, car, jet, telegraph, telephone and camera seeded the vast changes in human experience of time and space that we grapple with today. As Jeremy Rifkin once observed, "the greatest turning points in human history are often triggered by changing conceptions of time and space."
As a result, we now live in a world of 24/7 living, bountiful multitasking, and portable relations and thought. The cultural geographer Yi-fu Tuan describes place as a 'realm of pause' and space as a 'canvas for movement.' We now inhabit space - a boundary-less, ever-shifting domain of simultaneity. The brain is plastic, and so is this age. And that's good.
Still, I'm worried. These digital age wonders will be squandered if we can't think critically, research well, and evaluate the data-floods we now have at our fingertips - and these are precisely the skills alarmingly lacking among both digital natives and older generations. Half of college students can't judge the objectivity of a website. Workers now switch tasks every three minutes, half the time interrupting themselves. As David Nicholas points out, we spend our time online 'power-bouncing' from info-snippet to data-point. And this propensity to rely on point-and-click, first-up-on-Google answers, along with our growing unwillingness to wrestle uncomfortably with nuances or uncertainties, keeps us stuck on the surface of the 'information' age. We're too often sacrificing depth for breadth in the ways we make sense of the world.
Yes, we've always had 'power bouncing' and distraction. And surfing or multitasking may have an important place in 21st-century society as strategies of learning. But going forward, we need to do much more than hopscotch across the web, split-focused and pulled this way and that by choice distractions. We cannot mistake fragmented, diffused attention as avenues of higher thought. Instead, we need to do better at cultivating - perhaps resuscitating? - deep focus, keen awareness and meta-cognitive 'executive' attention - the skills crucial to creativity and problem-solving.
Where to start? If we can 'green' the earth, we can clean up our noisy, interrupt-driven environment, in part by setting times and spaces for focus and reflection. Science now tells us that attention can be trained - so let's start teaching these skills to our kids. If we can control and hone our powers of attention, then the real question before us in this confounding, alluring digital age won't be "who are we?", as much as "who do we want to be?"