Digital Diets, Attention Spans and The Rhythms Of Learning

by Thomas Brett

Is the Internet and all manner of digital media really doing something substantial to our consciousness, to how we think?  Is my attention span not getting worse exactly but maybe becoming fractured?  This is the subject of at least a few articles I’ve read lately, including this one in the Times which is part of a series called “Your Brain On Computers.” My guess is that it’s going to be a while before we have overwhelming evidence that our minds are being ruined by our technology.  But it’s undeniable that computers have changed the rhythms of learning.

Here’s an interesting take on the matter from visual artist Keegan McHargue.  In the Nov/Dec. issue of The Believer, McHargue discusses his blog, Mauve Deep, which seems to be a kind off the cuff repository of images the artist finds compelling.  When asked if he “curates” his blog in any way, McHargue made some interesting observations about the effect of the Internet on how we absorb information:

“I like that the Internet allows information to pour to me indiscriminately.  From high fashion to design to obscure music, sites about art history and theory to blogs about cakes and pastries.  It just comes to me now. I’m not looking at visual information with specific intent anymore. I’m taking it in as a steady stream.  That’s how information currently feels.  It’s certainly very different from seeking things out as we used to have to…It’s funny that people try to fight it, because it feels easier than ever before to learn and grow.

How did I not see the world this way before? I’m an information fiend…It’s too much work to have an opinion of own’s own, and with the steady flow of information coming at us now–maybe we’ll transcend the idea of individual perspectives and move into a more collective consciousness as a whole” (p.84).

What I find interesting here is how McHargue articulates the dynamics of idea discovery on the Internet: the idea of that we can tap into a “steady stream” of pure information, including text, images, sounds on every topic under the sun (including cakes and pastries).  And while it’s easy to dismiss McHargue’s not bothering “to have an opinion of [his] own”, we understand where he’s coming from as an artist: he’s just swimming in a sea of data.

What does all this have to do with musical experience?  Well, I’m thinking about how it feels to explore YouTube: you begin with the goal of “finding” a particular clip on this or that music and soon enough you’re on an adventure in places you never expected to be.  Maybe this is what McHargue is referring to when he speaks of transcending “the idea of individual perspectives and move into a more collective consciousness…”  That is certainly what it can feel like when your YouTube search leads you astray and into something unexpected and interesting that may have little to do with what you wanted.

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