A Digital Dostoyesky's Time and Punishment

What I’m about to say borders on heresy. But before I risk being virtually burned at the digital stake, let me tell you that, although I am older than most of the writers in this industry, I am not old-fashioned. I don’t pine for the days of spending hours at the record store flipping through bins of vinyl albums, nor do I miss fiddling with my Nakamichi BX-300 (I couldn’t afford a Dragon...) in order to make cassette tapes of those albums for my car. I like - no, I love - most modern technology and crave more of it. (Bring on the domestic robots, I say! Just don’t make them with any of those scary-ass faces some Japanese researchers have designed. If they’re going to be our overlords, I want them to at least look good.)

Now for the heresy. I believe that an unfortunately large number of us are willingly exiling ourselves to a vast digital desert where we flit like spastic butterflies from one entertaining mirage to another. Without a doubt, I think this is definitely a case of good (or, at least, benign) technology paving a super-smooth road to hell.

According to much-quoted statistics attributed to the Associate Press on the internet, the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds (in 2000) to a mere 8 seconds (in 2012). (To put that in perspective, the average attention span of an ordinary goldfish is 9 seconds – although I have no idea how you how you go about testing a goldfish’s attention span...) It seems obvious that there’s a connection between decreasing attention spans and the ubiquitous availability of digital info, communication, and entertainment – with both home and mobile devices – but I don’t have any hard research to back that up.

If you’re still paying attention long enough to read this far, what bothers me more than shrinking attention spans is the disappearance of “down time”. Some would call it “boredom”. Others, me included, think of it as time for “introspection”. With all sorts of digital devices begging for our attention and the easy access they provide to the mental quicksand of the internet, does anyone spend any time actually thinking about things in general and/or talking to the people next to them?

A couple of instances that got me thinking about this. I went to a college women’s volleyball game recently. During timeouts and various breaks in the action, I was struck by how many of the spectators immediately grabbed their mobile phones and began staring at or typing on the screen. This included the majority of the adults as well as the students in the stands. For me, the unnerving thing was that almost all of these people were sitting next to someone – and since it was not crowded, I can only assume they knew one another. But thanks to their phones, they could avoid actually conversing with one another.

Another example happened the other day when I helped chaperone a middle school dance hosted by my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. Despite the fact that it was a “dance”, the traditional separate herds of boys and gaggles of girls quickly formed. But, at any given time during the evening, the faces of at least half of the kids were lit by the soft glow of their smart phones as they texted one another. (I have other anecdotes, but I’ll spare you the disturbing details…)

Think of all the great ideas that have come from boredom or enforced free time. Would Dostoyevsky, for instance, have ever written Crime and Punishment had he not been forced to endure exile in Siberia – with the thought-provoking bonus of a mock execution and last-minute “pardon” by the tsar? Would Ron Popeil have ever made a success of the Popeil Pocket Fisherman or the Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler had he sat around retweeting other people’s tweets all day?

Much as I love technology, I’m now of the opinion that there should be a Digital Time Guide Pyramid with recommended daily doses of digital and other activities – much like the old Food Guide Pyramid. Somewhere on this DTG Pyramid, maybe where the 3 servings of Vegetables used to be, there should be a healthy dose of Digital Down Time. Much like eating broccoli or stewed zucchini is for your body, Down Time is an important part of your brain’s daily diet. Give it some thought. You never know what you might think of…

utopianemo's picture


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Rob Sabin's picture
Nicely put, Darryl.