Distraction theorists claim digital devices destroy our ability to perceive greater truth and beauty / AFP/Getty Images

History shows that we’ve feared the same from every advance in communications technology

Every time I participate in a discussion of educators , sooner or later I will encounter the lament that “sadly ours is an Age of Distraction”. The conviction that we live in an age of distraction has acquired the status of an incontrovertible truth. Teachers and commentators regularly contend that the younger generations have lost the capacity to concentrate because of the distracting technology available. Adults are also said to be afflicted by the disabling effects of their distracted minds. Discussions on  literacy often blame digital distractions for our allegedly poor reading habits.

Not a day seems to go by without the publication of yet another cautionary study. As I write this paragraph, I am distracted by a report  published this morning that contends digital dependence is “eroding human memory”. 

According to this study of the memory habits of 6,000 adults, looking up information online “prevents the building up of long term memories”. If all the recent reports of memory loss and diminishing attention spans are to be believed, it is unlikely that you will get to the end of this essay.

Earlier this summer Microsoft published a report that argued the widespread usage of smartphones has led to the deterioration of attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today. In all seriousness, the report claimed that human attention span had become so short that even a goldfish could hold a thought for longer! (For the record, it insisted that goldfish have an attention span of nine seconds.) The belief that people’s attention spans are falling was also echoed in a marketing research study, published in August, which reported that 72 per cent of a survey of 1,500 young adults in the UK agreed that people have shorter attention spans due to technology.

Allegations that the distracting effects of the media landscape have a deleterious effect on children’s attention spans and are responsible for their poor reading habits are rarely questioned. Increasingly, adults – including grown-up writers and intellectuals – have written about their own struggle to read seriously without being distracted by diverse online attractions. The author and essayist Tim Parks wrote: “What I’m talking about is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.” David Mikics in his Slow Reading in a Hurried Age has sought to promote skills that can immunise readers from the supposed corrosive impact of digital distractions.

In an era obsessed with health, it is unsurprising that the perils of distraction have been recycled through the language of medicine. Mikics has discovered a condition called “Continuous Partial Attention” and claims that “kids who grow up with the digital technology are more susceptible to the diseases of constantly divided attention than older generations”. Predictably, neuroscience has been called in. “As a cognitive neuroscientist and scholar of reading, I am particularly concerned with the plight of the reading brain as it encounters this technologically rich society,” wrote Maryanne Wolf. Many observers conclude that the cumulative outcome of digital distraction is an epidemic of attention deficit disorders. The neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, claims the distractions of the “modern world [are] bad for your brain”.

There is now a veritable genre of literature and self-help books devoted to “raising awareness” about the effects of the Age of Distraction. Maggie Jackson’s ominously titled Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age captures the current zeitgeist of anxiety. 

Other books, such as Matthew Crawford’s widely cited The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction attempt to offer a diagnosis and also a way forward. Most self-help publications recycle tired old formulae about meditation, simplicity, religious contemplation and mindfulness as an antidote to the toxic effects of distraction. Titles such as The Zen of Listening: Mindful  Communication in the Age of Distraction compete with Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction. Some authors go so far as to embrace distraction as an opportunity to promote their cause. J Ellsworth Kalas’s Preaching in an Age of Distraction, directed at the “distracted preacher”, counsels its readers on how to get people to meet God precisely at the point of their distraction.

If indeed the arguments made by the authors of these books correspond to lived experience, it is difficult to understand who actually reads or at least manages to finish reading their books. One of the paradoxes of the proliferation of the literature on the Age of Distraction is that it is written for an audience that allegedly lacks the attention span to benefit from the wisdom communicated by the text.

The truth is, 21st century society may fear distraction and that our attention span is diminishing, but so did our ancestors. My research into the history of reading shows that since the invention of writing people have been concerned about the deleterious effects of distraction on memory and attention span. Ancient societies did not need digital gadgets and global interconnectivity to raise concern about the disorienting and distracting impact of writing and reading. Thousands of years before current reports, Socrates reacted to the invention of writing by arguing that it would weaken readers’ memory because it removed from them the responsibility for remembering.

For most of recorded history, reading was blamed for a variety of ailments associated with its distracting effects. One of the first recorded attempts to warn about books’ distracting effects came in Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, his very modern sounding health warning written some time between 63 and 65 AD. Seneca counter-posed the restless and disordered spirit to the ordered mind and cautioned that the reading of too many books “tends to make you discursive and unsteady”. Seneca did not need to draw on the findings of marketing research or the insights of neuroscience to conclude that books could be bad for your brain. Drawing a parallel with the consumption of food that is not properly digested, he asserted that the “reading of many books is distraction”.

Concern with the distracting effects of reading escalated with the invention of the printing press, the growth of the mass market in publications, and the availability of relatively cheaply produced books and periodicals. In the 18th century, ancient concerns about the emotional upheavals caused by reading were reinforced by a growing sense of unease with the disorienting consequence of modernisation and technological change. The era of information overload had arrived and numerous commentators insisted that people’s ability to reflect and think deeply was now at risk. 

Anticipating the lament about digital distractions, many writers were alarmed by the emergence of a mass market in printed publications. They claimed readers’ capacity to reflect, contemplate and truly digest books would be undermined by the shallow reading encouraged by the new mass literary landscape. Technological change and early modernisation created the conditions for “the kind of ‘unsettled reading” which Richard Steele of the Guardian criticised as far back as 1713 because it “seduces us into an undetermined manner of thinking”. 

During the 19th century, the problem of distraction was frequently associated with the unrestrained reading habits associated with the seductive powers of the novel. The most important negative health impact of the novel was thought to be its toxic consequence for the exercise of cognition. A growing preoccupation with this led to the elaboration of a theory that represented distracted inattentive reading as a major cultural problem, and an early version of the modern condition of Attention Deficit Disorder gained cultural legitimacy.

Since the 19th century, the issue of inattention has become a focus for both moral and medical speculation. Cultural anxieties were often coupled with moralising about the capacity of printed publications to undermine purposeful and responsible behaviour. The growing tendency to moralise the problem was based on a perception that regarded distraction as a constant threat to the cultural integrity and wellbeing of society.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the construction of a causal connection between reading and a temporal shortening of attention was integral to a critique of adult reading habits of popular fiction. Alarmist accounts about the loss of attention and concentration sought to illustrate their concern by pointing to the reduction in the size of the British novel. The demise of the three-volume novel in 1894 was blamed on a reading public who supposedly lacked the cognitive abilities necessary for their consumption. At the turn of the 20th century, the problem of attention deficit was blamed not on the internet but on the quick-fix sensations offered by easy-to-digest publications.

Medical references to poor or short attention span first appeared around the middle of the 19th century, and the shortening of the average reader’s span emerged as a theme for discussion at the turn of the next. Attention span was defined as the length of time a person could attend continuously to one type of stimulus, and one of the issues discussed in medical and psychological journals was its relation to poor reading habits. Long before the invention of the term “multi-tasking”, such distracted behaviour became a subject of scientific interest. 

Although the theme of distraction is a recurrent feature in human history, since the invention of writing its main focus has dramatically altered. In the past, the written text and especially printed publications served as the functional equivalent of distracting digital technology. Today the problem is no longer that books distract people from their responsibilities but that we have become distracted from reading itself. So in current times, claims that the consumption of novels represents a risk to mental health comes across as positively perverse. The representation of the Victorian novel as a medium of distraction makes little sense to 21st-century educators committed to encouraging a love of reading in their students.

Today, distraction is rarely linked to reading. Indeed it is frequently claimed that people suffer from a deficit of the kind of attention required to read a book; and this is usually blamed on the digital media. The diagnosis of the uninhibited reader of novels has been displaced by warnings about the effects of digital technology on the human brain. The symptoms and diagnosis offered by Socrates, Seneca  and an army of 19th century moralists about  the risks of distracted reading have been re-discovered by 21st-century neuroscientists.

For most of recorded history, reading was blamed for a variety of ailments

Alfred Austin’s 19th century essay “Vice of Reading” offered a veritable manual of disorders inflicted on the distracted reader. Today it is digitally-induced distraction that is held responsible for acts of self-destruction. Thus the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin warns about the dangers of addictive behaviour on social media by evoking the spectacle of a 30-year-old man who died in Guangzhou, China, after playing videogames non-stop for three days, and a Korean man who suffered a fatal heart attack after 50 hours of gaming. On a similarly dystopian note, the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has warned that the human brain faces an unprecedented assault and that therefore “there’s a danger that that cherished sense of the self could be diminished or even lost”. 

Whatever one makes of the current claims about the effects of our supposed Age of Distraction, it should be evident that their cause is unlikely to be the workings of new technology. The experience of the past indicates that most of the troubles attributed to the internet and digital technology have served as topics of concern in previous centuries. Contributions on the current challenges facing readers recycle an age-old mantra that there is too much choice, too much information and too much change. It is far more likely that our current predicament is not the availability of powerful and exciting new technologies of communication, but an uncertainty about what to communicate.

Historically, the perception of distraction is the outcome of the uncertainties thrown up by innovation and change. The question that is rarely posed by advocates of the distraction thesis is: what are people distracted from? Why should new technology distract them from reading when for so many centuries people used the printed word as a source of distraction? 

Insofar as there is a problem, it has less to do with new technology than with the absence of a language through which contemporary society can affirm and celebrate the love of reading. What history shows is that perceptions of distractions are heightened by the difficulties that society has in giving meaning to the experience of everyday life. Paradoxically, the transformation of the perception of distraction into an autonomous condition of life helps distract society from the task of confronting the challenge of finding meaning in its own accomplishments. Our era can become an Age of Distraction only if society wishes to avoid engaging with the uncertainties that it confronts. The Age of Distraction serves as a cultural myth that allows society to ignore some very inconvenient truths.

Frank Furedi’s ‘Power of Reading: From Socrates To Twitter’ (Bloomsbury) is out now