The main concept: is our ability to focus for short periods of time truly decreasing?
Since at least 2008, there has been a growing concern about our ability to focus, sparked by a question posed by US tech journalist Nicholas Carr: “Is Google making us stupid?” In response, there has been a proliferation of solutions to combat distraction, such as apps like PawBlock that offer cute animal pictures as an alternative to social media, and screen modes like Microsoft’s Focus that aim to promote mindfulness. On the other hand, programs like QuickReader that claim to increase reading speed offer the allure of consuming more content in less time. As a society, we seem torn between the importance of concentration and the prevalence of distractions.
Behind these worries and their remedies are two connected assumptions, typically blamed on our addiction to the dopamine highs of social media. The first is that our distractedness is both recent and negative; the second, that our concentration was better in the past. Carr recollects that formerly he would read immersively, engaging deeply with narrative, like a scuba diver. Now he is a jetski reader, skimming across the surface at speed. It is a compelling, and immediately recognisable, assessment.
Perhaps these tales of deterioration are incorrect – or, more accurately, similar to most tales, their path is influenced by our starting point. Evaluating our focus with a perfect, recent history overlooks the reality that our attention has always been influenced by the larger context. It’s not only smartphones that have made an impact. Each new technology, from the earliest books to portable clocks, through reading glasses and trains, has altered the way we perceive and interact with the world. Every generation believes their own changes are more sudden or meaningful than those of their ancestors.
During the Industrial Revolution, the concept of concentration was highly valued in the ideology of work-discipline. This was referred to by historian EP Thompson as the strict system of clocking in and out that was introduced by new forms of capitalism. In this context, being able to concentrate was seen as complying with the expectations of a good worker in the factories, mills, and schools of Victorian England. In Charles Dickens’ novel, Mr Gradgrind, a cold schoolmaster, is depicted as having a “deadly statistical clock” that measured every second with a sound similar to a knock on a coffin lid, serving as a representation of this demanding and utilitarian approach to timekeeping. From this perspective, being easily distracted is not a personal flaw, but rather a radical alternative to internalizing a puritan work ethic.
In what we used, revealingly, to call “free time” (is the opposite of “free” “paid for” or “occupied”?), some of our nostalgic assumptions need a bit of interrogation. Immersive concentration, in, say, reading, was never a natural default. It, too, was a learned behaviour, prompted by new media, produced by specific historical and technical circumstances. Like the digital distraction of our own day, deep, concentrated reading was the consequence of a particular new technology. That technology was the novel.
As the production of lengthy written works increased in the mid-18th century, there was a sense of concern about the amount of time they would consume. This led to a moral panic, similar to our current worries about children’s lack of reading (except for instances of banning inappropriate material). Our ancestors were anxious about the possibility of children developing an addiction to novels and imitating the behaviors of their fictional protagonists.
Children and women were thought particularly susceptible to these fictive worlds. The female novel reader reclining in an armchair was a focus for the sort of disapproval directed towards couch potatoes today. As the philosopher and early feminist Hannah More put it, disapprovingly, women’s focus on reading served “to feed habits of improper indulgence, and nourish a vain and visionary indolence, which lays the mind open to error and the heart to seduction”. There was only a short step from absorbed reading to ruin.
In the past, reading deeply and getting lost in a novel was not considered a sign of strong focus. Instead, it was viewed as a threat to vulnerable readers, potentially causing them to disconnect from reality and leading to negative effects on their physical well-being and moral compass. While there are similarities to current concerns about the effects of mobile phones, the past worries were focused on activities like scuba diving rather than modern activities like jetskiing.
The reading revolution that occurred during the 18th century is commonly described as a shift from focusing on a few moral or religious works to a more widespread consumption of secular fiction. This change in reading habits was influenced by specific attitudes and media. For instance, the use of marginal notes in Renaissance books and the creation of indexes to guide readers to relevant pages allowed for a more selective and varied approach to reading.
In the 16th century, readers did not typically read books from beginning to end for the purpose of following the story. Instead, they engaged in “commonplacing” or picking out specific quotes, ideas, and phrases that could be used in their own writing. This was often done through the use of a commonplace book or a collection of these quotes. In a way, this practice is similar to how we interact with our modern world. With the widespread use of powerful smartphones, they have become our own personal commonplace book where we curate snippets from our lives, reflecting a desire to personalize and customize our surroundings, which would not be unfamiliar to those living during Shakespeare’s time.
We must view our personal understanding of being easily distracted in a broader context. Focusing is a learned behavior influenced by society, and its importance varies depending on the situation. The current trend of consuming large amounts of TV shows and podcasts shows that we have not lost the ability to concentrate, but are using it in different ways. We choose when to concentrate. Distraction opens up different, not necessarily inferior, opportunities compared to deep concentration. And completing a book in one sitting should not be seen as a measure of morality.
Emma Smith holds the position of professor in the field of Shakespeare studies at Hertford College, Oxford.
Reworded: “Four Thousand Weeks” is a book by Oliver Burkeman that discusses time management for ordinary individuals. It is published by Vintage and is priced at £10.99.
“Maintaining Equilibrium in an Era of Excess: A Review of Anna Lembke’s Dopamine Nation” published by Headline for £10.99.
Writing on the Wall: The Intriguing History of Social Media, from Ancient Rome to the Present Day by Tom Standage (Bloomsbury, £14.99)