The editor's commentary by William Falk in the December 7 issue of The Week
is worth repeating:
When I'm in a masochistic mood, I survey the 8:03 into the city to see how many of my fellow drones are passing the time by reading. Only about half the people have their noses in newspapers, magazines, and (rarely) books. The rest are either dozing or entertaining themselves with iPods, laptops loaded wtih TV shows and movies, and hand-held devices that their owners peck at frantically, like pigeons in a Skinner box. I find this not a little depressing, and not just because my only marketable skill is to string words together in some reasonably useful order. In five years, or 10, will anyone besides us ancients from the per-Internet era read for pleasure? The trends are not encouraging. A new report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 15- to 24-year-olds spend an average of just seven minutes a day on voluntary reading. Two-thirds of all college freshmen said they almost never read a book or an article outside of their schoolwork.
So what? you might fairly ask. Young people are reading plenty on the Web, and texting, and expressing themselves on MySpace and Facebook and 10 million blogs. But on the Web, as National Journal media critic William Powers has pointed out, you don't really read. You "forage," jumping from link to link, entry to entry, message to message. It's a world of fragmented attention and immediate gratification. Reading a book, or a well-constructed article, on the other hand, seduces you into putting everything aside; you have to focus. That practice develops concentration, and the capacity to follow--and express--complex thoughts and ideas. Not surprisingly, national tests have found that the ability to write and read complex materials is withering, even among graduate students. Read a whole book? R U serious? LOL.
Huh? Concentration? What's that? That bit hits home for sure, as I rarely read anything longer than a semi-lengthy article and my concentration skills are completely nonexistent. Heck, the last time I read books regularly, like maybe five or more "real" ones in a year, was sometime before high school. One of the effects of this--and something that contributes to the downward spiral of one's ability to concentrate--was revealed to me recently when a few of us at work took some online ADD-detecting test thing and I scored barely
under its threshold for treatable ADD. Not that I put a ton of stock in one online test, but it is at least a hint.
And the sad thing is, as the commentary shows, I'm not alone. A couple of co-workers had stratospheric scores on the test, and it doesn't take long to realize that most people around us are apparently incapable or undesirous of sustaining deep, thought-provoking discussions without tuning out or getting overly emotional. And supposedly the number of people diagnosed with some form of attention disorder is skyrocketing, although it's pretty obvious to me that such a problem is not as much a "disorder" or "disease" as a culturally-driven condition that is a direct result of the frantic pace of every part of life these days. In a world where people just jump among popcorn tasks from the moment they wake up to when they fall asleep (i.e., after their mind finally slows down enough to allow for sleep), the practice of sitting calmly for long periods and reading something can't even be grasped much less undertaken.
There are several paths to take here, as the comments hit on a lot of problems. The last part of the first paragraph is quite surprising. I mean, seven minutes
of voluntary reading per day? Since it's nearly impossible to read even a short article in a mere seven minutes, the average is certainly being brought down by considerable numbers of people who read on their own rarely or not at all. And voila, most college freshmen hardly ever touch lengthy reading material unless they're required to. So it's not hard to conceive of someone in a major that doesn't entail much reading never having to read a book cover to cover throughout college.
And in today's college world, unfortunately, such requirements are also decreasing in frequency, even among those liberal arts classes that one would expect to see them in. And when they're there, they're easy to get around via skimming Cliffs Notes or similar varieties, finding enough relevant random facts on the web to make a paper appear well-researched, or just flat-out making up bogus statistics and sources. (I've seen or heard of specific instances of each of those being practiced multiple times.) It was common practice back in my day to base one's electives on how much effort was required outside of class, and we never had trouble finding a slew of classes that met the "just show up and get an A" criteria. From what I hear, that trend isn't exactly improving these days; things are probably noticeably worse than they were just a few years ago during my college days. In the days of instant gratification and mile-long to-do lists, the idea of spending considerable time reading--and learning
--about a topic beyond the bare minimum required to slip by seems foreign to most folks, including me.
Another thing that jumps out is the disastrous effect of the Internet and gadgets that have sprung up in recent years. Television was already attacking the perceived value of more worthwhile hobbies well before the newcomers arrived, but they certainly gave people even more options for multitasking  and substituting for greater endeavors. I find that the internet is just like TV in that it gives you a ton of choices, each of which give the desired results very quickly (as opposed to a ton of books, which may all be available at any time but also require considerable time to get the desired result from). Just like it's easy to channel-surf and bounce from blip to blip to suit one's whims, it's easy to just click link after link depending on whatever topic or interest strikes our fancy.
I'm becoming more and more convinced that both are tools of evil. Not that they're inherently bad, I mean, but they can and often do trap people in a state of constant desire for immediate pleasure that prevents us from focusing on the greater world and truths around us because they aren't as easy to take in on the spot. I've had cable TV and internet for a month or so now, and although it's convenient beyond words it is getting very old already. I can't see tolerating the TV half beyond football season -- some things are just necessary, you know -- and I'd like to get rid of the high-speed internet as well, though the latter would be harder to justify in light of the near-equal cost of much slower stuff. I do wonder sometimes, though, if slower internet wouldn't be better because it would force me to spend more time on articles that take 28 minutes to load and it would teach patience and accommodating something's limitations...nah, need not go there.
Now the guy does slam blogs, a take which I don't entirely agree with. Sure, it's perhaps not as intellectually stimulating as reading a difficult book, and writing is much more freeform than reading and thus doesn't require the same level of focus. He's got points there. But putting thoughts together in some coherent form and in more than a couple of paragraphs does require some amount of concentration and effort, and sometimes a bit of research to go along with it. I can attest to that from experience. So if he's talking about the usual MySpace-esque "blogs" out there on which posts often amount to no more than random blurbs about random thoughts or experiences, I'm with him. But there are "higher levels" of blogging that aren't exactly wasted pursuits. That being said, it should be fairly obvious to any reader of this blog that my overuse of parentheses and asterisks to include pop-up thoughts, redundant use of words stemming from a limited vocabulary, etc. indicates some less-than-optimal level of concentration and attention span.
And gadgets...where to begin with them? How often do we not
see somebody running around talking, texting, emailing, spacing out listening to music, or otherwise doing something besides paying attention to what's around them or focusing on a complex task at hand? And this is sort of behavior is commonly viewed as a symbol of status or importance? Geez, what layer of hell have we fallen to? Those things are annoying on a whole new level  that I'm not sure existed before their invasion into our world. People's addiction to and craving of them probably I could go on for hours, but let's just say that it'll be a sad day when large numbers of the general population, even poor people with little or no discretionary income, plunk down significant sums of their income on such toys at a time when Americans' saving tendencies are said to be at an all-time low. Wait...we're already there.
Finally, I have to point out the irony of the commentary. The writer is an editor of a magazine that specializes in condensing the previous week's news into bite-size pieces of information that can be taken in and processed quickly, allowing one to devote less time to reading and more to the rest of the tasks on the list. The Week's
cover page claims it's "all you need to know about everything that matters"--it's basically a Cliffs Notes for current events (which probably explains why I like it so much and usually breeze through it the day it arrives). In other words, the guy is decrying the growing desire he sees for instant, low-effort gratification, while at the same time helping put together a publication of which the implied goal is to enable and sell such gratification. Um...get a different job?
In conclusion, William Falk is, of course, not the first guy to point out this problem. Neil Postman continues to be proven to be one of the greatest prophets of our time. As yet another plug for a book I bring up often, Amusing Ourselves to Death
is required reading for anyone hoping to understand technology's impact on society. There's a lot more to go into along those lines and related to the commentary at hand, but my concentration has expired...
---------- I'm really starting to hate that word multitask. The idea is highly regarded in society but represents a lot of what is wrong with our day-to-day lives. The ability to multitask requires the ability to shut down one's focus and instead remain detached enough from all things to be able to do many at once. So it should follow that the strengthening of one ability will go hand in hand with the weakening of the other. As with just about anything, I prefer depth over breadth. Trouble is, that's extremely hard to maintain in our society and I'm guessing in most jobs as well.
 I'm ashamed to say I'm getting up to speed on the latest commercials. There's a Verizon one that shows three teenage girls standing outside looking at the pony one of them got for Christmas. The other two have the hottest new phones, and the one is clearly disgusted and angry that her parents didn't buy here a cool gadget like her friends did instead of the pony that clearly represents boredom and disappointment. The tag line is even something like "get them the gifts they really want"--I mean, catering to every desire a kid has is what parenting is all about, right? Not only is this just plain sad to anyone who appreciates animals and the joy (and responsibility) they bring, but I can't remember a commercial before this that has so vividly displayed so much of what is wrong, evil, depressing, etc. about modern society, much less done so in such an irritating way. (Well, I'm now remembering some others, but the point is made.) Shameful. Perhaps Cingular isn't any better, but I'm pleased to not be a Verizon customer.