The Attention Deficit Society--And What We Can Do About It

** Not just kids but adults today are shallow and incapable of deep thinking, says Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, because our brains are changed by what we do and the Internet is designed for speed and fast connection, not depth and concentration.


** Not just kids but adults today, too, are lonely, says Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, because we're so attached to our devices of social networking that we confuse "sharing" with "intimacy."  We don't know how to be alone any more so we're always lonely. 


** Not just kids but adults today, too, are terrible at multitasking and yet multitasking has taken over every aspect of our lives, says Clifford Nass, author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.  


Those are the grim verdicts about life in the digital age pronounced by my three very smart, distinguished co-panelists last week at the Milken Institute Conference on "Shaping the Future," on our panel called "The Attention-Deficit Society."   Dennis Kneale, of Fox Business News,was the lively moderator of the session in the Beverly Hills Ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel . . . and the session was packed.  After Nick, and Cliff, and Sherry . . . it was my turn to pronounce the gloom and doom, how we're going to hell in a handbasket or, at the very least, we're going to the dogs, that civilization as we've known it is fast disappearing before our eyes . . . woe, woe is us!


Well, not so fast.   I happen not to be a techno-determinist, someone who believes technology rules us.   I happen to believe between the maleable, plastic, ever-shaping and ever-regenerating brain there happens to be will (on a personal level), instruction (on a pedagogical level), care (on a parental level), and oversight (on an institutional level).   That is, the Internet is not Godzilla and we are not the panicked, screaming, fleeing mobs in a B-movie, doing everything we can to escape but, inevitably, incapable of doing anything but succumbing to the monster who is taking over our life.   I just don't buy it.  I don't buy it when I look at youth today and I don't buy it when I look at the aged.   We are in a time of enormous local and global changes, social and economic and political upheavals, even climactic changes, and those are happening concurrently with  technological change . . .  I don't believe, not for a second, that the Internet is the only factor changing the shape of our lives.  


I don't believe a technology can "make us" dumber, lonelier, or distracted.   But I am grateful for the research of my three distinguished, serioius, dedicated, and admirable colleagues because they define the challenge of our era--one that you and I can acknowledge, address, and win.    As I said on our Milken Institute panel, it was a bit of a set-up having me follow Cliff, Sherry, and Nick because, if they define the problem, it makes my job as a technology educator and innovator easier and my role more urgent.   Whatever the nature of the problems, at school or in the workplace or at home, I like addressing them and working with others to help solve those problems.  


I am neither utopian nor distopian about technology.  I don't think technology solves all our problems or causes all our problems.  We, as humans, do a pretty good job of using technology for good or ill, our own or that of others.  


I am a techno-pragmatist, a techno-realist, and a techno-innovator.   (You can't be an innovator without being realistic since innovation appraises a situation and figures out what you need to do to move from the Now to the Next.)   As an educator, I of course believe that learning--in school and out of school, and in social and emotional not just intellectual ways--is the key to figuring out, together, how to use technologies in the wisest ways.   With the right tools and the right partners, we can do just about anything.   But the key is that we have to realistically understand the situation so we can feel inspired to make the effort to find those tools and partners to make a difference.


That's why I'm grateful to Cliff, Sherry, and Nick.   Their grim picture helps inspire us to change.   We have a choice.  We can go about trying to use our old habits, practices, and institutions even as technology has changed.  Or we can figure out the best ways to use these new digital means of interaction to our best advantage.   Between the computer screen and my maleable brain, is will, institutional change, the best partners, role models, teachers, and tools.  All of the above.  


If you would like to watch the video of this really marvelous panel, here's the url: As our moderator noted, you really could not have put together a better group of writer-scholar-researchers to address the serious issues of attention in the contemporary world.


I'm convinced if we work at it, the "attention-deficit society" can be transformed into an "attention-rich society" that in many ways compensates for the dehumanizations of the industrial age.  Here's just one example.  The "over 75 crowd" is the fastest growing demographic on Facebook.  Why?   Because industrialism is about putting worker productivity above worker relationships.   Migration, movements for jobs, and many other complex social-economic factors of the last one hundred years have split families and friends and loved ones apart.  Facebook doesn't solve the problem, but it offers us a tool that can help us over separation when other forms of contact elude us.  


As a cultural historian and analyst of technology, one of my pet peeves is pronouncing on the woeful or wondrous state of technology today without a reference point.  Too often, the implicit comparison is between all the bad things in the present compared to all the purportedly wondrous things in "my childhood."  Well, we know from neuroscience that memory is very selective.   The pre-Internet TV generation was already bemoaned as "the lonely crowd" and a time of "bowling alone" as well as being a time of "information overload" and "shallowness."   Famously, Socrates said pretty much the same thing about the technology of his day that he found made people dumber, isolated, and distracted:  writing.   (Yes, you read that correctly.)  I don't think the past was perfect, and don't believe the future will be.   I think tools--writing, the wheel, the World Wide Web--can be used well or badly.   I like it when we work together to find creative ways to use our tools well.


In Amsterdam, a decade ago, old people in nursing facilities were hooked up not just with the Internet but with partners in Internet cafes.  Soon, the patients were reporting less depression, nurses were finding a decline in the amount of medications needed, and suddenly the Dutch were having to "add more beds" because they were not being vacated at the normal rate.   Translation:  seniors in these care facilities were living longer.   And the young people were enjoying the connection too.   Being Holland, there is now a digital "bill of rights" which allows seniors access to the Internet in care centers.


A:   The Internet makes us dumb, distracted, and lonely?   B:   With the right tools, institutions, and partners, the Internet can help us to be smart, engaged, and sociable?   If those are the choices, I'm going with the B, the techno-pragmatist option.



--Cathy N. Davidson is author of the forthcoming, Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn  (Viking Press; publication date, August 18).  For more information, go to    Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC and co-director of the HASTAC/MacArthur $2 million annual Digital Media and Learning Competitions designed to identify and support the most innovative new approaches to collaborative, connected, interactive learning and social engagement.







sociability and unsociability

Hi Cathy.  I agree with you, it is of course how we use digital media that is the source of its 'advantages and disadvantages'.  For myself I've been working on overcoming the technophilia/technophobia dichtomy by trying to conceptualize the mutual relativity of sociability and unsociability, particularly in multi-dimensional, multi-tasking contexts.  I'm currently launching a research study funded by SSHRC in Canada at York University in which I will be exploring with my participants the dynamics of the sociable and unsociable aspects of status updating/commenting/tweeting on FB and Twitter.  If you are interested, you can check out my project at and at


Cathy Davidson

Good luck with your project!

This looks very interesting.  I was intrigued this summer when the study, I believe by Pew, surprised us all by revealing that those kids who spend most time on social networks have more not less friends in real life than those who do not.   Interesting how we so often (I'm a historian of technology) want to believe a new technology replaces other behaviors, rather than amplifies or supplements them.   Good luck with your work.



thank you, and thanks for the reference to Pew, always a great resource!