To complete her homework assignment, Meran Hill needed total concentration. The University of Washington senior shut the blinds in her studio apartment. She turned off the music. She took a few deep breaths.
Then she plunged into the task: Spend 15 minutes doing e-mail. Only e-mail, and nothing else.
Soon enough, though, a familiar craving bubbled up. For some people, the rabbit hole of Internet distraction begins with cat videos. For Ms. Hill, who calls herself “a massive weather geek,” it starts with a compulsion to check conditions in outer space.
As Ms. Hill plowed through e-mails, the voice beckoned: If I could only just leave and go to Spaceweather.com …
But the assignment had her trapped. After a while, she says, staying on e-mail felt more natural.
The e-mail drill was one of numerous mind-training exercises in a unique class designed to raise students’ awareness about how they use their digital tools. Colleges have experimented with short-term social-media blackouts in the past. But Ms. Hill’s course, “Information and Contemplation,” goes way further. Participants scrutinize their use of technology: how much time they spend with it, how it affects their emotions, how it fragments their attention. They watch videos of themselves multitasking and write guidelines for improving their habits. They also practice meditation—during class—to sharpen their attention.
Their professor, David M. Levy, sees these techniques as the template for a grass-roots movement that could spur similar investigations on other campuses and beyond. Mr. Levy hopes to open a fresh window on the polarized cultural debate about Internet distraction and information abundance.
At its extreme, that debate plays out in the writing of authors whom the critic Adam Gopnik has dubbed the Never-Betters and the Better-Nevers. Those camps duke it out over whether the Internet will unleash vast reservoirs of human potential (Clay Shirky) or destroy our capacity for concentration and contemplation (Nicholas Carr).
On college campuses, meanwhile, educators struggle to manage what the Stanford University multitasking researcher Clifford Nass describes as a radical shift in the nature of attention. Mr. Nass, who lives in a freshman dormitory as a “dorm parent,” sees that shift on students’ screens. They write papers while toggling among YouTube and Facebook and Spotify. They text and talk on smartphones. They hang out in lounges where the TV is on.
Amid this scampering attention, some fear for the future of long-form reading. That was a theme of a keynote speech at this year’s conference of the American Historical Association by the group’s departing president, William J. Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Speaking to a ballroom of book-worshiping professors, the environmental historian expressed his anxiety about what he called “the Anna Karenina problem.”
Within 20 years, he wondered, will students manage to muster the dozens of hours of attention necessary to get through a lengthy novel like Tolstoy’s 19th-century classic? If not, what does that mean for works of history that are even harder to read?
When I ask Mr. Cronon what prompted him to stress that issue, he points to an encounter that illustrates the peril to the discipline of history:
A young man came up to him after a lecture he gave at another university. The talk had presented the themes of a 500- to 800-page book that Mr. Cronon is writing about the history of a small Wisconsin town, called Portage, from the glacier to the present. The young man told the historian how much he liked the lecture, but lamented that he could never read the book. Looking sad and ashamed, he said he had never read anything that lengthy.
But Mr. Levy, a professor in the Information School at University of Washington, sees a problem with many discussions about what technology is doing to our minds.
“So many of those debates fail to even acknowledge or realize that we can educate ourselves, even in the digital era, to be more attentive,” he says. “What’s crucial is education.”
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