Supposedly, technology is making our attention spans shorter but our life spans longer. What does this leave us with, a hellish eternity of gormlessly scrolling through life’s newsfeeds never bothering to actually take anything in? According to a 2015 Time article, our attention span has become shorter than that of a goldfish. Their evidence is based on a study by Microsoft Corp which states that the time it takes us to lose concentration has slipped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to a mere eight seconds in 2015. For comparison, we’re now lagging behind the goldfish’s impressive nine seconds. It seems to me to be a sad if not slightly unjust statement that after millions of years of evolution we have somehow found ourselves unable to exceed the intellectual capacity of a small fish. Supposedly we can be proud about the fact our ability to multi-task has improved, but this is to the detriment of our ability to concentrate on any one thing. The article attributes our increasingly diluted approach to the mobile revolution, an age in which we are spoon-fed instantaneous access to information. Nowadays, if we can’t remember something, we can just google it rather than trying to work it out.
This need for speed facilitated by technology has affected almost all of our interactions – many of us would prefer a Netflix night in to a cinema excursion, short clickbait articles to lengthy novels, Facebook feeds to fantasy fiction. Our culture is defined by its need for instant gratification – we want our packages next day delivery, our Uber waiting at the door, our fun flat-packed and sex in a box. We want quick and efficient returns, and we are ruled by a childish impulsiveness. Sometimes even technology can’t keep up with our impatience. A 2012 study by Compsci professor Ramesh Sitaramen that examined the habits of 6.7 million internet users found people were willing to be patient for two seconds of a video loading before they start abandoning. After five seconds, the abandonment rate is 25 per cent. When you get to 10 seconds, half are gone.
Where are they going? Why is everybody in a rush all of the time? It’s as if we are worried that time is slipping away from us. Would things be different if we knew we could live forever? Currently billions are being poured into biotech firms in Silicon Valley trying to solve the ‘problem’ of ageing. Scientists remain in disagreement about how far human life can be stretched, with some believing no more than the current 120 years or so, whereas others thinking there is no limit. Aubrey de Grey, English author and biomedical gerontologist who remains largely unpopular with mainstream scientists, estimates that the first person to live up to 1,000 years is probably already alive. How would this affect our impulse-driven lifestyles? Perhaps the knowledge that we’re not pressed for time would make redundant the Carpe Diem mentality that we have to live life in the moment, and take everything as quickly as possible. Perhaps our quality of life would dramatically increase and we wouldn’t need technology to make things happen immediately. Rather than take an Uber we might prefer to walk home in the dwindling twilight, and Netflix nights in could be replaced by three-day Truffaut screenings. Fast-food takeaways could be replaced by 12-course feasts.
“The Guardian reported that, two months ago, vinyl sales overtook digital for the first time in the UK”
To be honest, I don’t think that longevity is directly connected to quality of life – people in the Middle Ages took the time to read the whole of The Canterbury Tales, and their life expectancy was only around 40. In the Middle Ages, they didn’t have much else going on in terms of entertainment. Now, we are overwhelmed with things to do and watch, and we just don’t quite have enough time for any of it. Even if we could live till a thousand, I’ll bet that we still manage to whittle away hundreds of years playing BuzzFeed quizzes and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. I don’t think that it’s time that we’re lacking; rather, our impulsive, insatiable desire to have everything instantaneously comes from the illusion that we have no time. Our consumer-driven society that feeds off our insecurities is turning us into egotistical commitment phobes who discard their old phones the minute the Apple Store releases a new model. We’re always waiting to see if something better comes along.
However, sensibilities are shifting as people are starting to react against the quick-fix nature of the digital world. People are returning to the slow-burning pleasures of analogue – The Guardian reported that, two months ago, vinyl sales overtook digital for the first time in the UK. People are slowing down their lifestyles, too – just look at the slow food movement, for example, started in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986 as a reaction against fast food chains like McDonald’s, or the increasing interest in slow medicine, which is focused on identifying the root of health challenges and creating thoughtful, step-by-step approaches rather than quick solutions. Even Netflix, despite being quicker to access than a film at the cinema, provides us with a much longer character development than a 90-minute movie can. Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg had us gripped for the duration of 62 episodes.
So on the one hand, we are consuming information quicker than ever before, and young people are probably more likely to watch a Zoella YouTube clip than read Hamlet. But, gradually, the various reactions against our impulsive culture suggest that, although we might not yet be able to live forever, we are starting to try to take things a bit more slowly, and relish every moment. Maybe ‘seize the day’ is becoming ‘slowly embrace it’. Technology helps us to access things quickly, but it’s also catching on to the fact that our priorities are changing. If you prefer film photography to digital, Instagram has a tag for it – #filmisnotdead. And if it’s mindfulness you’re after, well, there’s an app for that, too
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