Lately I've been thinking about how the web, and in particular modern social media, affects our attention span and our ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. This is something that has been gnawing at the back of my mind since I read The Shallows - What the Internet is doing to our brains
several years ago.
One thing that dawned on me just recently is just how different the internet was when I first got exposed to it. This was about 1990, about the same time that http
and the WorldWideWeb
came about, but before it had begun to take hold.
The dominant protocols of the time was of course, email
(nntp) and irc
. There was also some pretty cool apps accessible over telnet
in those days, and gopher
was established enough that we used it from time to time as well.
What's interesting is that all these protocols are text
based. As I remember it, at least among my fellow students at the time we were divided roughly into two segments: Those preferring irc and the real time chat, and those preferring usenet (or "news" as we normally called it.)
I belonged to the latter group, and spent hours most days reading posts and threads on subjects I found interesting. I learned a lot, and found communities that had some amazing expertise and detailed knowledge about everything from programming and electronics to politics, religion and other subjects that interested me.
I also found text-only reports, instruction manuals/pamphlets/books and even schematics on ftp servers around the globe.
The thing is: There was few distractions in that environment. Everything was text. Apart from in gopher there was no hyperlinks (but often references). There was no quick search. Archie was able to find files on ftp servers if you know what to look for, but you sent it a mail and I usually had the results by the next day.
Thinking back, I miss this environment. I feel it encouraged concentration and delving more deeply into a subject than what the web of today does. But I might just be nostalgic towards a time that has gone by.
The early web did
make things easier for a lot of people. The proliferation of "homepages" in it's early days bear witness of that. Internet became more accessible to many through the web, and the diversity and depth of knowledge produced by ordinary mildly tech able people in the early days were astonishing!
Somewhere along the line though, it has been taken over by the advertising industry. Wanting to feed us into their algorithms optimised for selling as much as possible in a short a time as possible without us noticing. It's all about attacking the attention span. There's no need to encourage you to spend any more time than it takes you see the ads and decide if you're going to click. Then divert your attention to the next thing to expose you to more ads. Then repeat!
Can we break out of this pattern? The forces that want to keep us in are strong. They are the ones who build the browsers, the frameworks, the code that build the new web aimed at attacking your attention. They are the ones infiltrating our educational institutions, giving "free" access to their tools to students so that they can learn how the infrastructure of modern web works. They are the ones that have the money to spend on coercing our politicians to not regulate or put bumps in the way of their web of profits.
While us old geezers may dream of simpler times, when anybody with basic programming knowledge could implement any protocol on the internet, I don't think we can (or should) reverse time and go back to that. But perhaps there are some things we can bring along into our world of today. If nothing else, some ideas of how to make an internet for everybody, not just for the big corporations.
I dream of a web owned by it's users, not by the surveillance capitalists and monopolists. I just don't know how we can get there.