Like most poets, Robert Hass advises us to be wary of the “steady thoughtlessness / of human use.” For Hass, this admonition turns into praise for those who cook beloved, time-consuming recipies, or leave thoughtful notes of thanks to the often overlooked, or put their batteries in recycling bins instead of the trash can.
Such small acts of thoughtfulness require us to pay attention to the physical world around us–and that’s precisely what the Strother School of Radical Attention wants its pupils to do. Their argument, as they present it in this morning’s New York Times, is that we are in the beginning of an era that will require “focus” as a subject that’s just as as reading, writing, or arithmetic. By the time kids get to school, their logic goes, they’ve had thousands more interactions with screens than with physically present humans, and the companies who put content on those screens have a vested interest in distracting viewers from all the other content providers who want our eyes and minds and wallets. The result of such wild, free-market competition: attention spans in young people that don’t often get beyond 47 seconds.
It’s tough to get through any curriculum with an attention span of that range. It’s even harder to have an informed electorate, or a core of citizens who care enough to think critically about the long-term effects of the actions they pursue–or drivers who can go a city block without checking social media.
I’ve long believed that the most radical thing a person can do is to lead a sub-digital life. I don’t know that I can go that far myself. After all, some of you will read this (ahem) important post on your smart phones. But at the very least we must rethink our relationship to electronic devices, as well as the access to them that we allow young people to have. Where should such reconsiderations begin?