Sheesh. So, since I've last posted, I've had two exams, someone spend the weekend here, and various other personal and relational occurrances. Those involved know who they are. I've also had one of the authors of Nation of Rebels comment on my "Countercultural medicine" post, which is unspeakably cool.
But now, ironic as it may seem after not posting for two weeks, I want to talk about "Internet Anxiety Disorder", something that's been going around the net off and on for the past year or so. Slashdot picked up in this post today. Basically, the idea is that in our "six megabit world" those of us who are well and truly wired are somehow manifesting a varietal of adult ADD or other psychological disorder.
There may be something to this in certain cases. When something starts interfering with your life, whether it's gambling, alcohol, cats or the net, something is wrong. This doesn't strike me as being particularly controversial, and there are people for whom being disconnected is a truly unsettling experience. These people have a problem.
But what I'm interested in here is the persistent assumption that needing to be doing a few things at once, or at least being a furious multi-tasker, is inherently a sign of something like ADD. I don't think that it is. I think it's certainly a departure from the cognitive patterns our parents and grandparents are used to, and simultaneously doing five things at once that are only tangentally related (if that) can easily look like one is doing nothing at all. For a mind trained to think about one thing at a time, this is certainly not a productive use of effort.
But sit anyone over 35 or 40 down at a video game console and have them compete with your average 15 year old at a game neither of them has played before and see who wins. Odds are pretty good that mom and dad don't do very well. People who spend a lot of time using computers - especially those used to surfing or gaming on a regular basis - are able to process multiple sources of incoming information simultaneously without much loss of content. Take, for example, a simple fighting game. You've got to watch your character, your opponent's character, your health, your opponent's health, and maintain a decently high degree of hand-eye coordination with an object you aren't looking at all at once. It takes a certain kind of mental skill to do this, and most people who play these and other games don't think anything of it. In terms of complexity, it only goes up from there. A decent mech game will have at least 6 info feeds, plus tactical overlays, depending on how complicated you want to get. And you don't have to be a gamer to get used to this kind of connectivity. With broadband growing in ubiquity and cell phones nearly ubiquitous, just about everyone 30 or younger will probably be able to describe similar things.
The thing is, the mental resources that go into keeping track of all of this information don't just shut down and go away when you pick up a book or sit down to write that status report your boss has been bugging you about. They're still there, still waiting for some bandwidth to absorb. You've got your mind trained to multi-task, and if you don't give it something to do, those other parts of your attention which aren't immediately occupied will find ways of amusing themselves, ranging from distracting you with extraneous thoughts to stressing you out about things you don't really need to think about just now.
So, when I sit down to, say, study chemistry, I'll actually wind up doing chem in 15-30 minute spurts, interspersed with other things. This isn't because I have trouble paying attention. I can think about the same thing on and off for days, as anyone who knows me can relate. It's because reading from a textbook doesn't tend to be high enough bandwidth to occupy those parts of my mind that are used to doing other things. So I'll study for half an hour, and then do the dishes, or check email, or clean the bathroom, or switch subjects, or anything. But I'll be less productive sitting and staring at the page while my mind is off doing other things than by doing what seems to be a chaotic hodgepodge of things. Better to give myself something to concentrate on so that I can actually figure out the tension on a string caused by a yo-yo as it is dropped than to stare at the problem without doign anything.
Again, it's not that I simply can't concentrate. But if enough of my brain isn't occupied with the task at hand, it's as if none of it is. This is why I don't watch cable news or read newspapers. It isn't because the coverage is facile (because it is), or that the information is out of date (also true), or because the politics never cease to bug me (don't get me started), but because I'd much rather get the news through the five or six different browser tabs I have running at once. That way I get as much news as I want, as in depth as I want, with the perspectives I want, at the pace I want, rather than being force-fed sound-bites by some talking head or having to deal with six inches of tripe before the two or three salient facts manifest themselves towards the end of the newspaper article.
I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. I think it's just a new way of dealing with the world. And rather than diagnosing some kind of behavioral disorder (a class of "diseases" of which I'm deeply suspicious), it'd be better to figure out how this new way of thinking lets us interact with the world in different ways. Say, for example, the ability to completely ignore certain info feeds. "Banner blindness" is a new mental trend that is seriously freaking out advertisers: a significant percentage of people who read a web page cannot, within seconds of reading the page, tell you what ads were on the site. This strikes me as a useful skill, the ability to sort out advertising from content on the fly, without thinking about it. I could come up with some more, but I've got to get something to eat and get back to studying oxidation-reduction reactions for my quiz on Wednesday.Posted by ryan at April 9, 2005 07:46 PM | TrackBack