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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Can You Score Higher Than a Goldfish?

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, 
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay. 
-      Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, 1770
The quote above appears on the dust jacket front cover of Tony Judt’s book, Ill Fares the Land, which takes its title from Goldsmith. Judt made the point more prosaically:
This is still the case. It is the growing inequality in and between societies that generates so many social pathologies. They generate internal division and, sooner or later, internal strife—usually with undemocratic outcomes. 
-      Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (2010)
Not much over 200 pages, with short chapters and generous page margins, Judt’s book can be read in a relatively short time. The catch is that it must be read attentively. As always with this writer's work, his encyclopedic knowledge, skillful synthesis, and a superlative command of the English language demand -- and deserve -- focused reading.

The other day I began drafting a blog post that grew and grew to unwieldy length, an alarming and self-defeating result since my topic was reading attention span, distractions, and multitasking! How could I hope to hold anyone’s attention for that long with my own poor words on a screen? So here’s only a bit from the beginning of what yesterday's word avalanche-in-draft:


How do you or I compare to a goldfish when attention spans are compared? (The site says “gold fish,” two words, but the color of the fish, as I’m sure we all agree, is irrelevant. Red fish, blue fish, one fish....) The answer might surprise you. But then, upon reflection, you may also think, as I did: How many things does a goldfish have to pay attention to, anyway? How many distractions typically divert the attention of a goldfish from its usual focus (whatever that may be)?

Pursuing my own questions about attention spans, I gleaned from another online site these four points directly relevant to multitasking:

Multitasking reduces level of performance.

Studies find individual variation in concentration amid distractions, but everyone’s overall performance declines below a fairly low multitasking level.

The more adept a brain at excluding distractions, the better the memory, the more learning.

When distracted, we rely on “habit memory” rather than on processing new information.


I’ll stop there. Much of what I went on to write had to do with new scientific information and how ill-equipped are most Americans, even those who think of their perspective as very “scientific,” to evaluate the findings presented in mainstream media. Maybe that’s a topic for another time.

Today, however, I’ll simply close with a lament for all the young people – for all the Americans, young and old, but especially for the young, the audience Judt hoped to reach -- who will never read Ill Fares the Land or other similarly thoughtful books that go beyond the shallow “two sides” of what passes for political debate in the United States today. Beyond labels, beyond slogans, there is a wealth of history and educated, intelligent, carefully considered opinion that would inform us and enrich our national conversation. Tony Judt was one of those voices, and, while he is no longer among us, we still have his books. Hearing what he had to say, however, demands that we take a break from multitasking and engage with his thought in a focused way. This one small book is both deep and dense. For this reason, it is demanding reading.

The thing is, when you close a book like this, you’ll go on thinking about the ideas in it for a long time.


Dawn said...

As I began to read this, with the news on the TV, and Katie messing with my foot on the sofa I realized I was trying to read about attention spans with really paying attention. And that I probably do this all day long, in fact I know I do. What has happened to us that we can no longer do one thing at a time?

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I think you meant "without really paying attention," didn't you?! One thing that's always bugged me about leaving comments in not being able to go back and correct my errors. I usually write my blog posts quietly, rewrite them, check for editing, etc., but right now my attention is divided between replying to you, conversing with my husband, and trying to block out distracting nearby conversation and terrible music at the coffee house! But in a little while I'll be back outdoors with Sarah, leaving multitasking behind, and I know your time outdoors with Katie is very focused and relaxing, too.