Just as we used to blame TV, we blame the internet for our diffused attention span. People, what happened to taking responsibility for your own web browsing?
I’m a bit fed up of articles in which journalists complain the internet is destroying their attention span. Many such pieces have appeared as reviews of the book The Shallows, which argues that spending hours online rewires your brain, bringing your most immediate and superficial thought processes to a fizzing, bubbling boiling point that eclipses the more meditative parts of your bonce.
Marshall McLuhan was wrong, back in the 60s, when he said “the medium is the message”. He was talking about television, but even as his ideas circulated, David Attenborough was commissioning Kenneth Clark to make the inspiring documentary series Civilisation. The vast differences between good and bad television, which still exist – and which were confirmed in the 70s by the rise of eloquent television critics like Clive James – showed the medium is not the message. What you put on the medium is the message.
Online culture is no more inherently brain-addling than television. It depends what you put online, and someone somewhere is putting anything you can think of on the web. It is clearly a lot less passive than TV at its worst: here you have constant choice and the instant ability to interact. Journalists and all professional writers have found this confusing, threatening, and sometimes maddening, but let’s not confuse our self-interest as people who have somehow found a way to get paid to write with the Death of Western Culture.
More harshly, when it comes to we journalists quoting The Shallows, well … people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. I have written for all kinds of publications and in all kinds of sections of newspapers; while I love journalism, there is no doubt that you often have to filter ideas through a grid imposed by editors according to their definitions of what readers want. I still have an editor on this blog, but I have more freedom, and can address readers directly – which also involves you replying, often directly. I am not really sure how that is less intellectual, more superficial and shallow, than, say, being asked – as an art critic – to interview a famous flower arranger for a colour supplement, which happened to me once at another newspaper.