The classes we’re having down here at Singularity University are really amazing. It’s a unique opportunity to listen to speakers who blow your mind. I must confess, however, that there’s something I’m quite worried about: When taking some distance from what is going on at the classes, you can notice that, hard as we may try, we students don’t manage to pay attention for an extended period of time.
It seems as if the culture of brevity reflected on Twitter or TED (the shorter the better) had destructed our capacity to stay focused for more than just a couple of minutes.
Maybe it’s because it’s been a long time since I last stepped into a classroom. Or it might be because at that time we didn’t have personal computers on our desks. Or perhaps it was because even if we had one, there was no internet to put the whole world just one click away. Truth is that my prior experiences on what it means to be “a student” consisted in 40 minutes to 2 hours sitted, paying close attention most of the time.
When I noticing my attention span was so much shorter, I worried. About 15 minutes after classes started -even with topics I found incredibly interesting- I found myself getting distracted. I couldn’t even tell when my mind simply decided to leave me. Jjust as it happens when we’re reading a book and we’re tired: We realize that about two pages back our eyes have followed the text but we haven’t registered any information.
Then I started to look around. What I saw worried me even more: I wasn’t alone in this. Everybody around was experiencing the same thing. In the middle of an outstanding lecture, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to listen to amazing speakers, most people were tweeting, using Facebook, Wikipedia or even doing e-mail.
Some of the distractions were relevant, for example checking a website mentioned by the lecturer or a Wikipedia article related to the class subject. Many others were completely random. None of them -even the most relevant- were good. But having a window open to spy on what was going on in thousands of other places (reading tweets, checking Facebook) seemed to be an irresistible attraction for our attention -beyond our own will. Just like a person going for a bite of that chocolate cake even knowing that they shouldn’t.
A while ago somebody gave me an example of how TV series scripts changed from the 70s or 80s to today. In the past, every episode told a story. Nowadays, TV channels wouldn’t broadcast episodes unless there are at least three underlying stories interwoven. For instance, we wouldn’t tolerate watching a Starsky & Hutch or CHIPS episode today. Some even say that those old episodes can be summarized in barely 7 minutes without losing any information.
Chris Anderson was aware of this when he created TED. Same thing happens with formats as Ignite and Pecha Kucha. Content must fit in the very few minutes our minds can pay attention nowadays. Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on TED has over 1,400,000 visits on Youtube. The exact same thing, but more developed -the complete 83-minute version- is somewhat below 60,000 visitors. This means that from all the people who enjoyed that video and were fascinated by Ken Robinson’s ideas, less than 5% referred to a longer, more detailed video on that topic.
I am sure that many of us also probably face this situation when relating with your beloved ones. We find ourselves checking our cell phone or computer while interacting with our couple, children or friends.
It seems to be an adaptation mechanism from our brain in response to the hyperstimulation we’ve been subjected to over the past years. But what is adaptive to multitasking is likewise destructive for our capacity of paying attention to one thing only.
With all this in mind, I can’t stop thinking that with this change we’re, in the blink of an eye, losing something very valuable: The chance of really fully being present where we physically are.
I’m not sure whether the group of students at SU represents what happens around the globe. I’m interested to know if you think this is a general phenomenon or simply sheer madness of a bunch of people living at the verge of hyperconnectivity and hyperstimulation. And if this is actually a general phenomenon, how should education adapt to this new reality?
I always supported hyperconnectivity. Right now I’m not that sure.