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Capitalism is Eating Everything, Including Your Attention Span
How to not be for dinner.
“Capitalism has no land left to cultivate but the self.
Everything is being cannibalized — not just the goods and labor,
but personality and relationships and attention.
The next step is complete identification with the online marketplace,
physical and spiritual inseparability from the internet:
a nightmare that is already banging down the door.”
—Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror
Maryanne Wolf is a UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies psychologist. Before that, she was a professor and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Wolf’s 2018 book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, reminds us that deep reading, and focused writing, are skills that need to be strengthened, or they will atrophy.
We should think of the mind like a muscle. It needs to be challenged to grow stronger and strengthen connections.
Unlike the acquisition of language, which is innate, meaning we come into the world with a part of our brain designed specifically for acquiring and deploying language, we do not come into the world with a part of the brain designed specifically for reading and writing. Reading and writing skills are developed through neural networks which are strengthened or weakened with use.
What Wolf found in her research was that as we move to read on the Internet and through screens, we strengthen the neural networks for skimming and scrolling while we atrophy our neural networks for deep reading.
She even found this in her own life as she sat down to read the works of Herman Hesse, her favorite author, only to discover that she could no longer sustain the attention that such a complex writer demanded. It took her weeks of working on the text, with focused attention, to regain the skill of reading a difficult writer.
The national statistics on reading are especially troubling. Author Johan Harri lays out the trend in his book Stolen Focus:
The American Time Use Survey — which studies a representative sample of 26,000 Americans – found that between 2004 and 2017, the proportion of men reading for pleasure had fallen by 40 percent, while for women, it was down by 29 percent.
The opinion poll Gallup found that the proportion of Americans who never read a book in any given year tripled between 1978 and 2014.
Some 57 percent of Americans now do not read a single book in a typical year.
This has escalated to the point that by 2017, the average American spent 17 minutes a day reading books and 5.4 hours on their phones. Complex literary fiction is particularly suffering.
For the first time in modern history, less than half of Americans read literature for pleasure.
According to a survey conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the shares of American 9- and 13-year-olds who say they read for fun on an almost daily basis have dropped from nearly a decade ago and are at the lowest levels since at least the mid-1980s.
Among both the 9 and 13-year-olds, the percentages who said in the 2019-20 school year that they “read for fun on [their] own time almost every day” were at their lowest points since the question was first asked in 1984, according to the survey, which was fielded among U.S. public and private school students before the COVID-19 outbreak.
En masse, we are becoming a skimming and scrolling society.
We flit from headline to headline, tab to tab, taking in bits and bites of information.
Our brains have not changed substantially in 40,000 years, and we can only do one thing at a time. This is a limitation of our species, and we will not witness a fundamental change in that design during our lifetimes.
We are not computers that can run two programs at the same time. Humans cannot multi-task. This is a fallacy.
We can create the illusion of multitasking by task-switching very rapidly. But each time we do it, we hinder our creativity, allow room for errors to creep in, and degrade our overall performance.
With each shift in our attention, we passively accept the loss of our critical thinking skills and become more susceptible to groupthink and mob mentality.
With the introduction of AI tools like ChatGPT, I worry about what this will mean for the next generation’s writing and critical thinking abilities. Writing an essay is not just putting words down on a page. It is organizing an argument. How many students will use ChatGPT as a tool to assist them in researching and structuring their own views, and how many will let ChatGPT just do the work for them?
If they choose the latter, their neural network for curating a thoughtful and organized position will atrophy. Thinking through the facts, determining the thesis or main idea of what you have read, and articulating that in a way that another person, a reader, can understand.
And this is what the technology industry desires—more passivity.
We become like docile cattle. Slow walking into capitalist creations. The tech industry would prefer that we not think critically about these products because we might begin to resist them if we did.
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