Two weeks ago I had an acute attack of depression and anxiety. Having returned to a (mostly) rational state of mind, I’ve been attempting to parse out the causes of the problem, and I think my penchant for late-night multi-window internetting may be partly to blame.
While I was thinking about this, I came across a thoughtful PBS documentary on digital media called Digital Nation. You can watch the whole doc online here.
My interest in Digital Nation was in what it said about fractured attention in a digital age. It’s hard to dispute that most of us are expected to live and work in a state of constant and multiple digital connections. I wanted to know how that might affect the reading and writing of poetry, a practice that demands undivided attention. I’m also wondering what the ever-expanding digital world means for those of us who work primarily in words rather than primarily in technology (and I know you’re reading this online) i.e., is poetry the message that risks being usurped by the medium? Does poetry have to compete with more flash and buzz than it did previously? Does everything have to be scintillating? What about ideas that take time to percolate?
Digital Nation seems to be aimed at parents and teachers wondering how best to grapple and engage with students who are digital natives, whereas I, on the cusp of Generation X and Generation Net, am worried that these slightly younger and much smarter and swifter multi-taskers will overtake me in the work world. One MIT prof interviewed in the doc claims that his students are mostly “trying (to multitask) in a way that’s not as effective as it could be because they’re distracted by everything else.” Another prof notes that you cannot assign a book longer than 200 words to students because they won’t read it.
Kids today are awesome multitaskers! They’re capable of it all!
While typing this post, I’m watching segments of Digital Nation online, listening to a shitty crime drama on cable, and reading an article on rabble.ca about Harper and Women’s Rights. Then the landlord comes by with pie, and now the news is on.
But what’s it doing to their brains?
Personally, I get overwhelmed by too much media at once. And I prefer to focus on one thing at a time. In fact, it might be essential to my mental health.
One researcher posits that the multitasking wunderkind college students are not as good as they think they are. Another, Dr. Gary Small at UCLA, studies the effect of internet usage, performing brain scans of people first reading a book and then doing a google search. He found a more than two-fold increase in brain activity while searching online.
People in the 1960s warned us that we were moving into an era of information overload. Now we're in the midst of an evolution that could rival Gutenberg.
Two years ago my grandmother died, and rather than suffer through the slow process of grieving, I tried to silence my emotions with the internet. And it worked – as long as I was online, I didn’t have to feel anything. I played video games. I read blogs. I read gossip sites. I thought I had to read every piece of news and commentary on every interest I had, and I thought this would make me more poised to market myself professionally. I didn’t sleep. I ignored my partner. When we talk about that period now, we refer to it as “the professionalism phase,” and we don’t refer to it fondly.
Next week: The Olympics!
In two weeks: Digital Nation, Poetry Nation: Part Two
Nikki Reimer blogs and plans arts events in Vancouver, where she is a member of the Kootenay School of Writing and a board member at W2 Community Media Arts. Her poetry has been published in such magazines as Matrix, Front, Prism, BafterC and filling Station. A chapbook, fist things first, was recently published by Wrinkle Press and a book, [sic], is forthcoming from Frontenac House. She has never been to grad school.
Photo: Rory Zerbe