Those of us who fret about the effects that digital technology is having on our brains are sometimes criticised along these lines: “Listen, you curmudgeonly Generation Xer, staring down the barrel of middle age, oldsters like you have always complained about new things corrupting civilisation! Socrates wished writing hadn’t been invented, because people wouldn’t remember things, making them shallower; the printing press was blamed for 16th-century information overload; in the 1930s, grouchy social critics thought radio was rotting teenage brains.” To which I cantankerously respond: why assume those warnings were wrong? To be clear, I’m not really against writing. But maybe life before it did feel vastly more profound and filled with awe? Maybe there was more wonder in the world before we started cluttering it with the printed word or broadcast media? We’ve only known life since these innovations, so there is no way we could tell.
Even if you’re not fully on board with my (tongue-in-cheek) Luddism on such matters, I hope you’ll admit there’s a morsel of a good point here: when it comes to understanding what tech is doing to our minds – what’s happening to our powers of concentration, for example – one major obstacle is that it’s already doing it. You’re looking at life using a brain that’s already been shaped by checking your smartphone 50 times a day – so if your attention doesn’t feel fragmented, that might just be because you can’t remember what it was like when it wasn’t. “We’ve pretty much lost all touch with any perceptual benchmarks against which we might judge how utterly our information technologies have enveloped our lives,” writes the philosopher and former Googler James Williams. “We get fragmentary glimpses of that old world from time to time: when we go camping, when we take a long flight without internet.” Mainly, it’s vanished.
This is why I’m sceptical of the argument that we senior citizens should stop worrying on the grounds that younger people are perfectly comfortable in this new attentional environment. It’s hardly surprising that they’re perfectly comfortable, since it’s all they’ve known. The question, to quote the philosopher Matthew Crawford, is whether the rest of us “should take comfort in their comfort”. That a 14-year-old Fortnite addict is untroubled by Fortnite addiction doesn’t tell you much. Likewise, to me, dating on Tinder sounds like a backward step for humanity – and while I might be wrong, a 24-year-old with zero experience of doing it any other way is in no position to prove it.
As techno-optimists are always telling us, these concerns will probably go the way of worries about TV. A few decades from now, they’ll seem hilariously antiquated, and journalists will write articles mocking them. (Actually, probably three-second videos, transmitted directly to your neural implant.) But none of that means they were unwarranted. Even if all those earlier warnings were just instances of crying wolf, that doesn’t mean that this time there isn’t a wolf. Perhaps me and my fellow Generation Xers aren’t just grumbly change-haters; perhaps we’ll soon be the last ones alive who can remember what things felt like before. In conclusion, please get off my lawn.
James Williams shows how the attention economy distracts us – and distracts us from the fact that it’s distracting us – in his book Stand Out Of Our Light.