IN Phaedrus, one of the works of classical Greek philosopher Plato, protagonist and mentor Socrates bemoaned the invention of writing. Having never written down any of his arguments, Socrates fretted over the impact that writing would have on the human mind, making us more forgetful over time due to reliance on written records.
In a bit of irony, the diligent Plato wrote down his mentor’s teachings, preserving Socrates’s concerns about the written word for future generations to ponder on.
Fast-forward to the 21st century where the vast array of interconnected computer networks globally allows speedy access to information, concern over the impact of the modern medium on the human mind remains.
In 2008, in an online article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr ruminated on the effect, good and bad, on the human mind when he found himself no longer able to easily read through thick tomes.
He noted that his previously long attention span, which is necessary to be able to dive into deep reading of books, has transformed into one that makes it harder for contemplation and concentration.
He quoted media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who, in the 1960s, noted that media are not just passive information channels because they not only supply the stuff of thought but also shape the thought process.
“Once, I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski,” he wrote with what is imagined to be concern for what the future holds for the Internet-addled human race.
Clearly intent on exploring the matter further, he returned to the issue in his 2010 non-fiction book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
More troubling though, is the 2015 research findings by Microsoft Canada which indicated that the average attention span had decreased from 12 seconds to eight seconds in a 13-year period between 2000 and 2013.
This shortening of human attention span tracked the growth and advancement of Internet technology and access, with the number of global Internet users at 361 million in 2000.
This figure startlingly surged to 2.7 billion in 2013 worldwide, thanks to the increased availability of smartphones to the average consumer as well as the emergence of mobile Internet access on smartphones.
We need not look far. The ubiquitousness of wireless Internet access and portable smart devices has similarly impacted us as the majority of Malaysians own smartphones. This ubiquity can be good or bad.
Early this month, Malaysians went viral with messages on alleged kidnapping cases involving children in the district of Rompin.
Many Internet-enabled Malaysians sent the messages through their network of friends, escalating alarm and fear among parents of young children.
Rompin police chief Deputy Superintendent Azli Mohd Noor was compelled to issue a statement denying the veracity of these messages and urging people not to circulate them further.
“We have not received any report pertaining to the kidnapping cases as mentioned in the messages.
“In a case which allegedly occurred near a kindergarten of a residential area, it was actually a case of attempted car theft,” he said.
Azli reminded those who received such information to exercise responsibility by seeking verification from the authorities prior to sharing those messages.
It can be seen here that a shortened attention span, heightened by the ease of access to information and a lack of desire to read further on the matter, had led numerous Internet users to circulate messages without further thought.
The irony here though, is that even if one has misgivings, it does not change the fact that the movers and shakers of modern industries worldwide do act like the metaphorical guy on the jet ski, to borrow the words of Carr.
One industry where this is very clearly seen is the mass media, where newspaper publishers are fighting back against the allure of online news portals.
This is done by journalists constantly scanning through not only various print dailies but also checking for updates of postings on social media such as Facebook, video sharing sites like YouTube and instant messaging groups in WhatsApp, among others.
There is no better time to be a technological Luddite, who ironically would be risking the longevity of his attention span by surfing the Internet to deepen his knowledge.
Hidir Reduan is NST’s Pahang staff correspondent. He seeks pleasure in contemplative pursuits like viewing thought-provoking documentaries and reading. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org