Lots of commentators — like my old friend Nicholas Carr, for example – have bemoaned the rise of the Internet, and before that television, arguing that these evil distractions have shortened our attention spans and caused us to become digital idiots, capable of only the briefest moments of focus. Email, too, has come in for its share of blame and experts have recommended that you schedule it, or ration it, or avoid it altogether.
But all of this handwringing is missing the real point. It’s not that we’re becoming dumber, it’s rather that the object of our focus has changed. In one way, we’re actually getting smarter – much, much smarter.
Here’s what’s going on. Society – work, entertainment, and the arts – have been shifting from print to visual at a rapidly accelerating rate over the past half-century years. In the past decade, with the rise of broadband and the Internet, the shift has moved into high gear.
We’re only just beginning to learn how to create, present, and absorb information in visual terms. We’re like the first producers and readers of books as they became mass-producible with the advent of the printing press. Eventually, the press led to all sorts of novel ways to present printed information, and even art forms such as the novel.
Now we’re in the same early stages of the visual information explosion. YouTube is primitive, but powerful. Our ability to absorb visual information is accelerating rapidly. If you compare video – and movies – of the last few years with a movie from the 1940s, the difference in visual density and pacing is astonishing.
We’re learning a new language and a new medium. We can now handle visual shortcuts and codes that would have baffled us even 20 years ago. If you need proof of this, compare a TV show from the 70s to one today. That difference in pacing alone is remarkable.
And it’s simply not true that the Internet has caused us to be unable to handle longer forms of information and entertainment. Whatever you may think of Lost, or 24, or Homeland, the fact remains that these are long-form stories and require the viewer to be able to keep track of plot lines and characters every bit as complicated and dense as, say, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The difference is that the former are visually presented whereas the latter is print-based.
So the next time someone tells you that the Internet is making us stupid, respond that our visual syntax and grammar is more sophisticated than it has ever been. Print, maybe, is going away. But video is here to stay, and is rapidly becoming more and more powerful a medium of storytelling and information-sharing.