The old me would have despised the new me for admitting such a thing. I’ve tried to go on digital diets, fasting from my screens. I was a friend’s guest at a spa in Arizona once and had so much trouble being “mindful” that they nearly kicked me out. Actually, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t miss the Seahawks game, mindful of Seattle’s woeful offensive line.
In the information blur of last year, you may have overlooked news of our incredibly shrinking attention span. A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.
Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” I tried to read the entire 54-page report, but well, you know. Still, a quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, jumped out at me. “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, he said, will be “human attention.”
Putting aside Microsoft’s self-interest in promoting quick-flash digital ads with what may be junk science, there seems little doubt that our devices have rewired our brains. We think in McNugget time. The trash flows, unfiltered, along with the relevant stuff, in an eternal stream. And the last hit of dopamine only accelerates the need for another one.
I can no longer wait in a grocery store line, or linger for a traffic light, or even pause long enough to let a bagel pop from the toaster, without reflexively reaching for my smartphone. One of the joys of going to Europe was always the distance — nine hours in my case — from compulsive contemporaneous chatter. While I hiked the Cinque Terre, the West Coast was sleeping. No more. Somebody, somewhere is alerting me to something that can’t wait.
You see it in the press, the obsession with mindless listicles that have all the staying power of a Popsicle. You see it in our politics, with fear-mongering slogans replacing anything that requires sustained thought. And the collapse of a fact-based democracy, where, for example, 60 percent of Trump supporters believe Obama was born in another country, has to be a byproduct of the pick-and-choose news from the buffet line of our screens.
Even “Downton Abbey,” supposedly an exemplar of popular taste for refined drama in the Digital Age, is in fact a very hyper-paced entertainment. The camera seldom holds a scene for long, cutting from Mrs. Patmore’s sexual advice to the butler Barrow’s latest plotting at a speed that is more Nascar than “Masterpiece Theatre.”
A New York friend used to send me clever, well-thought-out emails, gems of sprightly prose. Then he switched to texting, which abbreviated his wit and style. Now all verbs and nouns have vanished; he sends emojis, the worst thing to happen to communication in our time.
But all is not lost. I don’t know what the neuroscience has to say about this, but I’ve found a pair of antidotes, very old school, for my shrinking attention span.
The first is gardening. You plant something in the cold, wet soil of the fall — tulip bulbs or garlic — and then you want to shout, “Grow!” Eight seconds later, nothing. Working the ground, there’s no instant gratification. The planting itself forces you to think in half-year-increments, or longer for trees and perennials. The mind drifts, from the chill of a dark day to a springtime of color. Hope, goes the Emily Dickinson poem, is the thing with feathers. But it’s also the thing that rises from a tiny seed, in its own sweet time.
The second is deep reading, especially in the hibernation months of winter. I’m nearly done with the second volume of William Manchester’s masterly biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion.” (O.K., I’m late to the book, Churchillians.) It’s zipping by. Next up is a new history of the Roman Empire.
Remember all those predictions that technology was going to kill book reading? It never happened. Paper books and stores that sell them are experiencing a revival of sorts. So, yes, I’m as screen-scrolly as the next guy when I’ve got the world in the palm of my hand. But put the thing aside, and kneel next to fresh-tilled earth, or curl up with an 800-page tome, and you find that the desire for sustained concentration is not lost. If anything, it’s greater.
Irony alert: I invite you to follow me on Twitter, @nytegan.