I can’t watch MTV, and my younger colleagues find long movies which rely on story rather than action impossible to watch. So I’d already suspected a shortening of attention span that was due to a “generational” difference rather than aging.
But the newest tools may shrink that even further, and limit the emotional developments of future generations according to an Oxford professor, Lady Greenfield. She points out that our emotional involvement in online entertainment is low, we receive instant gratification, and because everything is reversible we need fear no consequences. Although there are social activities online the sense of anonymity reduces the natural inhibitions that preserve social interactions.
Her presentation has led members of the government to admit that internet regulation is still too limited and doesn’t take broader implications such as the impact on children’s development into account.
But it’s not quite the whole story. For one thing many social networks echo networks in the real world. For example I’ve met and worked with almost all of my LinkedIn colleagues – I choose these criteria for connecting I realise that others are more open.
In one entirely virtual network that I belong to I have ended up meeting some of the people. This has led to some linguistic torture – we tend to date our first meeting to the online event not the “real life event”, and tend to refer to other people in the network as “friends” in discussions with friends in the “real world”. It’s become a strong network, offering support, humour, wise words and occasionally “virtual coaching”. I’ve edited thesis projects for others in the network, and canvassed their opinions on work issues.
Lady Greenfield does acknowledge that legislation isn’t enough, and that the answers lie in education and culture.
I’m somewhat more optimistic, I suspect our human need to connect will beat the potentially isolating effect of technology. It’ll just be faster than I’m used to.