The combination of the Internet and our electronic devices destroyed our attention span so bad that a disaster is waiting us unless we do something about it.
The good news is that people who can take charge of their attention span will have an enormous advantage over others. However, they’ll still have a hard job, because they’ll have to deal with colleagues, customers, friends, and family members whose attention span is already ruined.
How Did We Come Here?
Back in the day, when I was a child in the 1980’s in Turkey, we had a black and white TV, which had a single, state-run, TV channel. Almost none of the programs were interesting to me. On the contrary, they were so boring that I ran away from the living room. I remember my dread, when my dad said we had to switch on the TV and watch the news. That meant I got to be bored out of my mind. I didn’t get why we had to watch the news every day.
As a child, if I was to be entertained, it was up to my imagination and the imagination of my friends and family members. I always had a good time back then. I always found something to satisfy my curiosity. I used to dismantle my toys and see what’s inside them and how they were built. I used to listen to the real life stories of my grandfather. Sometimes, I used to play with other children. However, sitting in front of a screen and looking at it aimlessly was never an option. That would bore the hell out of me with a single, state-run, TV channel.
Then something interesting happened, Turkey became more and more advanced. A second state-run TV channel got started. A few other state-run TV channels followed it. Even though it was illegal at the time, private TV and radio channels got popped up. By the time, I started junior high, it was possible to get entertained 24/7 by a number of attention-grabbing TV and radio channels.
When I got to the college, MTV and similar TV stations started to broadcasted in Turkey. That meant the length of the average program was reduced from an hour to three minutes. And so did our attention span. I could stay up until 3 am by watching those three minute clips telling myself that I’m going to go to bed at the end of the next one.
With the introduction of the Internet, our attention span got further ruined. The mobile devices with fast scrolling features such as smartphones and tablets wiped out our attention span almost completely.
The Destruction of Our Brains
Next time, you open an app like Facebook on your mobile device, observe yourself carefully. How much attention do you pay to a post on average? You just scroll down the screen. If you see something interesting, you spend a few seconds on it, and you continue scrolling. Your attention span is literally reduced to a few seconds.
I remember an instance which was an eye-opener for me. A real human being was giving a live lecture on Facebook, I clicked it to watch it. After a few seconds, I noticed a more interesting video down the line and I clicked it. There was a real human trying to transform their knowledge to me for free, in real time, and I did not have the attention span to watch it and clicked away to a stupid, funny video, that Facebook recommended to me.
I’m not blaming Facebook here. Every other app on your mobile device is trying to do the same. They are trying to keep you as long as possible on their app. The best way to do that is to create an endless stream of attention-grabbing images and videos. Look at the most watched videos on YouTube. They include a stream of flashing images and screaming sounds. That stimulation bypasses the evolved parts of your brain and keeps triggering the most primitive parts of your brain. It keeps you in the vicious cycle of pain and pleasure, the cycle of fight, flight, or freeze and little rewards. As humans, we are not meant to stay in that state for too long. As a matter of fact, with our advanced civilization, we don’t need to get into that state that often in the first place.
What are the long and short term consequences of getting into a state of fight or flight and instant rewards this often and this long? Crippling of our attention span and other intellectual capabilities. The internet, our electronic devices, and the apps on them have similar effects to crack cocaine on our minds. This is the root cause of the problems with the so-called millennials. We, the older ones, got introduced to these devices when we were adults. A whole generation is coming who were raised by these devices. Their parents thought these devices were baby-sitters.
Saving ourselves, our brains, our attention spans, and other mental capabilities from the electronic devices and apps is crucial but not enough. We also have to figure out how to deal with colleagues, customers, friends, and family members who became addicted to these devices and apps. Believe me the first part is hard, but the second part is way harder. That’s why I will keep writing on this issue and I am curious to hear what you think about it.