Long-term Focus in the Age of High-speed Everything


Photo courtesy of Neha Kulkarni.

We are now living in an era of impatience. In all aspects of society, from business to entertainment, the keywords of today are “fast” and “easy”. Everything we touch must be available in an instant and be pre-packaged to be consumed with ease. Anyone who has been faced with a buffering screen on Netflix can tell of the agony that can be wrought by mere seconds. Why is this? The short answer: blame it on the Internet. If I can learn everything I need to know in ten minutes on Wikipedia, why listen to an hour-long lecture? Admittedly, turning to Wikipedia can maximize our productive output.  But like reading Sparknotes instead of the actual book, we lose more than just our capacity for patience when we take the faster, easier route. Instead of asking ourselves whether something is worth our precious time, we should start wondering if a couple of minutes are more valuable than the depth we lose when cutting corners.

It’s become some kind of futurist cliché to tout the Internet as the silver bullet for all the world’s problems. And because of its sheer size, there isn’t a sector of society that hasn’t been touched by its influence, from business and government to the very way we interact with one another. It’s undeniably altered our lifestyle – but is it fair to say it’s altered our selves? Is there even a difference between the two?

The problem isn’t that younger generations are losing the ability to pay attention; rather, it’s that we can’t stop.”

The scope of the Internet is, in a word, overwhelming, which means it’s easy to get lost as websites actively compete for your attention and precious page visits. As people try to read, watch, and listen to an exponentially growing trove of content, the mantra has become, “consume as much as possible.” This requires a strong ability to multi-task, an observable phenomenon in today’s youth that isn’t without its advantages (Tran, Carrillo and Subrahmanyam). But at the same time, this abundance of information demands Herculean feats of persistence to stay on top of everything, and generates a kind of hyperactive paranoia about missing out.  And so we sit in front of the screen, refreshing web pages in search of new Instagram posts, world events, sports scores, and whatever it is that piques our attention for the day. The problem isn’t that younger generations are losing the ability to pay attention;  rather, it’s that we can’t stop. It isn’t for lack of ability to focus that people like me check Facebook while working online – it’s for lack of ability to stop focusing on everything.

So how do we reclaim our full, undivided attention? Because as easy as it is to let technology be at fault, the culprit isn’t the tool but its user. It’s already apparent that internet addiction is a serious problem, so much so that “Internet Addictive Disorder”, which was proposed as a satire less than twenty years ago (Goldberg), was considered for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2008 (Block). Fortunately for most people, myself included, our tendencies are not clinically compulsive. Technology, useful and entertaining as it is, is changing our lives for the better, and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. And that’s a good thing. But there’s so much more to life than what can be experienced online – that’s what the off button is for. Let’s take a hike, read a book, or spend quality time with friends and family that isn’t mediated by a screen. There’s some very real life out there. We shouldn’t wait for Twitter to tell us about it.

Works Cited

  1. Block, Jerald. “Issues for DSM-V: Internet addiction.” American Journal of Psychiatry 165.3 (2008): 306-307.
  2. Goldberg, Ivan. “Internet addiction disorder.” (1996). Retrieved July 28, 2014 from  http://www.webs.ulpgc.es/aeps/JR/Documentos/ciberadictos.doc
  3. Tran, Phuoc, Rogelio Carrillo, and Kaveri Subrahmanyam. “Effects of online multitasking on reading comprehension of expository text.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace (2013): 2.

Matthew Aguirre is a Brevia staff writer.  He can be reached at maguirre@college.harvard.edu.