The rise of the internet and the widespread availability of digital technology has surrounded us with endless sources of distraction: texts, emails and Instagrams from friends, streaming music and videos, ever-changing stock quotes, news and more news. To get our work done, we could try to turn off the digital stream, but that’s difficult to do when we’re plagued by FOMO, the modern fear of missing out. Some people think that our willpower is so weak because our brains have been damaged by digital noise. But blaming technology for the rise in inattention is misplaced. History shows that the disquiet is fueled not by the next new thing but by the threat this thing – whatever it might be – poses to the moral authority of the day.
The first time inattention emerged as a social threat was in 18th-century Europe, during the Enlightenment, just as logic and science were pushing against religion and myth. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1710 entry from Tatler as its first reference to this word, coupling inattention with indolence; both are represented as moral vices of serious public concern.
The recent decades have seen a dramatic reversal in the conceptualization of inattention. Unlike in the 18th century when it was perceived as abnormal, today inattention is often presented as the normal state. The current era is frequently characterized as the Age of Distraction, and inattention is no longer depicted as a condition that afflicts a few. Nowadays, the erosion of humanity’s capacity for attention is portrayed as an existential problem, linked with the allegedly corrosive effects of digitally driven streams of information relentlessly flowing our way.
The perception of an Age of Distraction is related to our uncertainty about the answer to the question of ‘attention to what or to whom’. The sublimation of anxieties about moral authority through the fetish of technologically driven distraction has acquired pathological proportions in relation to children and young people. Yet as most sensible observers understand, children who are inattentive to their teachers are often obsessively attentive to the text messages that they receive. The constant lament about inattentive youth in the Anglo-American world could be interpreted as a symptom of problems related to the exercise of adult authority.
Often the failure to inspire and capture the imagination of young people is blamed on their inattentive state of minds. Too often educators have responded to this condition by adopting a fatalistic approach of accommodating to the supposed inattentive reading practices of digital natives. This pattern is evident in higher education where the assumption that college students can no longer be expected to read long and challenging texts or pay attention to serious lectures has led to the adaptation of course material to the inattentive mentality of the digital native. Calls to change the educational environment to ‘fit the student’ have become widespread in higher education.
How different from the reaction of moral philosophers such as Dugald Stewart, also concerned with the problem of the inattentive student. Author of Outlines of Moral Philosophy: For the Use of Students in the University of Edinburgh (1793), Stewart believed that the problem of inattention could be overcome through moral education. Unlike some contemporary academics, he regarded the ‘early habit of inattention’ a problem to be solved rather than an unalterable fact of existence. Helvétius fervently believed that everyone had the potential to acquire ‘continued attention’ and ‘triumph over indolence’.
Regrettably, the optimism of Helvétius has given way to a mood of resignation. Attention is still seen as desirable but almost impossible to achieve. As one alarmist account warns, ‘an epidemic erosion of attention is a sure sign of an impending dark age’. Helvétius would have been distressed by the fatalism expressed in this lament.