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Benghazi, Ukraine, and—Look a Squirrel

by Michael Austin, published

Remember when Vladimir Putin was a land-grabbing nationalist dictator who invaded Georgia? This was before he was our strategic partner who shocked the world by being a land-grabbing nationalist dictator who invaded Ukraine. That was in 2008.

How about when the Republican Party got the lion’s share of the blame for the protracted government shutdown, causing even conservative commentators to predict that the Republican brand was so damaged that they would lose the House of Representatives in 2014. That was all the way back in October.

But these are no longer current events in our culture. They are history — like Vietnam or the destruction of Carthage. That matters to the few of us who care about historical oddities. But they have very little effect on the present. They are no longer part of the news cycle. And, though events like these help partisans pad their narratives, they no longer, in the truest sense of the word, matter.

And this is consistent with the way that cognitive scientists see the human brain in the Age of the Interwebs. The human brain is very good at processing information; and it has a remarkable ability to rewire itself to the different ways that we encounter information in our environment. Scientists call this “neuroplasticity.”

This is why people in oral cultures often have prodigious memories and why, after the invention of writing, people were able to master the complex tasks of encoding and decoding written information in a single generation — but there was a price.

As Plato predicted 2500 years ago in the Phaedrus, universal literacy came at the expense of human memory. The cognitive resources required to read and write had to come from somewhere — and in a very short period of time, human brains rewired themselves to exchange prodigious memory with complex literacy.

In his magnificent book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that we are in the middle of a similar shift. The Internet is quickly becoming the primary shape of information in the world, and the Internet is built on the concept of distraction. Information links to other information, encouraging us to click away from whatever we are reading in order to read something else.

Pop-up advertisements interrupt us regularly when we are on the Internet, carrying us away to sites and content completely unrelated to whatever we started out with. And we almost always have Facebook and e-mail running in the background so we can always be connected to our thousand or so best friends. Most of us are lucky to read an entire paragraph in a single sitting.

This, Carr points out, has consequences for the way our brains work. It is creating a generation of minds that are very good at multitasking, but very bad at concentrating on things for long periods of time. And a society full of people who can’t concentrate on things for long periods of time will lack the attention necessary to do hard stuff. And this is a problem.

America’s signature achievements in the previous century — dismantling fascism around the world, connecting the country with the Interstate highway system, putting a person on the Moon — all required extended periods of national concentration. To do big things, we have to spend a lot of time thinking about them, talking about them, and believing them to be important. And we need leaders who are committed to keeping our national attention focused on the same problems for years at a time.

Our generation has its share of big problems that need solving: our unsustainable national debt, for example, or our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. And we have the tools to solve these problems — to craft sustainable economic and energy policies capable of guiding us far into the future. But these are the kinds of problems that we cannot solve in a fifteen-minute news cycle, or even a two-year election cycle. They are problems that will require us to pay attention to—

Oh would you look at what Rush Limbaugh said today!

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