Navigating the Digital Age: The Struggle to Sustain Attention and Immersion

Navigating the Digital Age: The Struggle to Sustain Attention and Immersion

Navigating the Digital Age: The Struggle to Sustain Attention and Immersion

Will Blythe writes about the difficulties of actually paying attention for a sustained period of time in the digital age in “The Life, Death—And Afterlife—of Literary Fiction” (Esquire, July 14, 2023).

He is particularly focused on short stories and novels, but the underlying thought applies just as well to those of us who spend a disproportionate share of our time communing with the economics research literature. Blythe writes:

As you read, is your smart phone or computer or iPad simultaneously acquiring notifications, texts and emails, along with promotions, advertisements and daily venues of news, opinions and games such as Wordle and Spelling Bee, an altogether constant onslaught of information, incessantly demanding that you spend every waking hour of every day focused on this unrelenting digitality that keeps showing up on the screen in front of you, that screen with which you likely indulge in more back-and-forth than you generally do in person with an actual human being, like, say, your husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, lover, boss, employee?

Are you multi-tasking as well, working online, Zooming, Googling, communicating with your fellow employees, but also darting off now and then to your favorite venues (like, maybe, this), and then back to your job, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth?

Another question: when you’re reading a short story (on this same site, for instance) or a novel, do you remain immersed in the narrative, able to stay there for quite some time without going anywhere else? As if you were having sex for fifteen or twenty minutes, maybe even half an hour, unwilling to allow any interruptions? Or as if you had dived into a swimming pool or a lake or a sound or a sea and were floating across the water, staring up at the sky?

Can you read anything at all from start to finish, ie. an essay or a short story, without your mind being sliced apart by some digital switchblade? Without your seeking distraction as a form of entertainment, or entertainment as a form of distraction? Or is all of this just ordinary life in the internet era, with your every thought and feeling and perception being diverted or fractured or dissolved or reiterated endlessly with utter normality in a digitalized world to which nearly all of us are fixated, or might we say, addicted? Did you ever even know a different world?

I still read for substantial stretches, but I typically do so on a Kindle or on paper. For me, trying to do substantial and sustained reading on a device with easy web access requires discipline: some days I have it, some days I don’t, and it’s useful to figure out what phase is happening earlier in the day rather than later. In the Minnesota summer, I also sometimes swim out into a lake, float on my back, and stare up at the sky.


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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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