May I have your (un)divided attention?

There have been a few recent items about the scarcity of attention in our hectic lives full of texting, social networking, “ambient awareness,” and “digital intimacy.”  Two articles stand out as having interesting implications for libraries and librarians: “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (Nicholas Carr, Atlantic Monthly) and “In Defense of Distraction” (Sam Anderson, New York Magazine).

In his discussion of Google’s effect on our behavior, Carr asks how the internet is changing the ways we think and read. Is online reading changing the way we approach other forms of text? Carr says yes, and laments what he sees as the loss of “deep reading” and “deep thinking”–extended, critical engagement with texts, our own thoughts, other people, etc.:

What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

Incidentally, I don’t think Carr is saying that Google is solely responsible for this change. Rather, I think he’s using “Google” as a stand-in for a much larger shift in internet usage and behavior.

Anderson’s defense of overstimulation makes an interesting read alongside Carr’s Atlantic Monthly piece. Anderson notes that we are experiencing a “poverty of attention,” and the conventional wisdom seems to be:

Google is making us stupid, multitasking is draining our souls, and the “dumbest generation” is leading us into a “dark age” of bookless “power browsing… We are, in short, terminally distracted. And distracted, the alarmists will remind you, was once a synonym for insane.

Anderson points out that there’s little we can do to turn back the clock. Instead, he’d like to know how we can adapt to this new reality. Anderson ends the piece by noting that despite widespread disdain for the divided attention of “digital natives,” their skill at multitasking could be recognized as something new and valuable that could be harnessed for good.

Some of the questions that came up for me while reading these two pieces…

  • How do you see the scarcity of attention affecting our interactions with users?
  • How does the realization that attention may be the scarcest of resources change the kinds of collections and services librarians provide?
  • How do you communicate effectively with your users knowing that they are in a near-constant state of information overload?
  • How have you seen users’ information-seeking behavior and demonstrated information literacy skills change in this world of attention scarcity?

Have thoughts? Let’s duke it out in the comments.

One comment:

  1. I’m glad that Meredeth points out that Carr’s title doesn’t adequately represent his thesis. In this case, it has been suggested (I forget where) that the title is sensationalist–you know, to get your fractured attention.

    How do you see the scarcity of attention affecting our interactions with users?
    I think the reference interview will get a major overhaul. Not necessarily with open questions and all that, more in the medium. I’m thinking something like MS Surface. Data visualization will become a more important player too.

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