The End?

The younger people are more distracted. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Attention Studies, King’s College, London, has found that 49 per cent of the 2000 adults surveyed admitted that their attention span was shorter.

The End?

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Albert Camus had famously said that the twentieth century was a “century of fear.” Today, he could very well have called the 21st century as a century of distraction. Technology has stolen our focus and our devices have hijacked our attention. Modern gadgets that we use daily are indeed invasive forces having a bearing on our concentration.

The younger people are more distracted. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Attention Studies, King’s College, London, has found that 49 per cent of the 2000 adults surveyed admitted that their attention span was shorter. Almost an equal number of adults agreed that deep thinking was now a thing of the past. Earlier the unsaid and the unsayable often said much more than the written and said words.

Literature had a passion for silence. We are now living in an epoch where we have ceased to enjoy a moment of silence. Without silence, we have lost our freedom to listen to ourself. This is what technology of distraction has done. As media critic John Culkin says, “we shape our tools. Thereafter our tools shape us.” Sweden, Britain and France have banned mobiles in schools. They are returning to printed books.


We are filling the classrooms with weapons of mass distraction. Joe Clement and Matt Miles in their book ‘Screen Schooled’ argue that early use of mobiles and laptops has impaired critical thinking. Screen saturation at home and school has created a wide range of cognitive and social deficits in the young minds. No wonder some of Silicon Valley leaders have put their children in technology-free schools. The millennials and Gen Zers are also suffering from a rising level of narcissism. In the age of tech-enabled communication, voice notes have become a new form of storytelling.

Voice notes or ‘voiceys’ are becoming a preferred way to communicate among Gen Z when they have hardly anything more than a few sentences to communicate. In 2022, as many as 7 billion voice notes were sent on WhatsApp alone. Maybe voice notes have become the new answering machine. The previous generation hated hearing their own voices. Today we love recording ourselves. A BBC report says that young adults in the US check their phones, on average, 344 times a day, that is once every four minutes.

Relying on our phones is atrophying our ability to remember. Whereas earlier speed was a means of efficiency, today it has become an attribute of immediacy in all spheres ~ technology as well as economic and social interactions. Technology and Instagram filters are rewriting our bodies and faces. AI and other modern technologies empower but also deskill us. With ‘technologisation’, the literacy of the fingers has changed the game somewhat in how the head always triumphed over the hands.

The culture of distraction has infected both politics and media. Across the world one sees a politics of distraction. The pseudo-events, personalised attacks and deceptive ads characterise both governance and political campaigns. Most important issues are buried in the fog of manufactured crises. Social contract is fraying. The welfare state and ideas and institutions that make it are under constant attack.

The governments are pursuing a permanent war economy. C Write Mills described it as “a politics of organised irresponsibility.” The less said about the social media, the better. Now Tik Tok has begun its Tik Tok news. Many youngsters depend on news influencers. TikTok content creator Dylan Page is at the helm of this new style of news reporting. He is best known for his snappy and engaging content covering current affairs and news content. His news channel platform has a 9.6 million followers. The scrappy truth-tellers have marked the beginning of an intellectual suicide.

AI-generated robo-callers and roboemailers have already eroded the information ecosystem. In the age of synthetic media and deepfakes, people believe what they see. A 2021 Stanford University study says that the content that goes viral the most is the content that violates people’s cultural values. It also found that social media users are most influenced by posts that express anger, rage and other negative emotions. What happened to the promise that in the information age computers would flatten economic hierarchies and democratise information?

Mark Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, went to town boasting how the youngsters have all the information and all the tools easily available “to apply knowledge however they want.” The opposite has happened. Mark Zuckerberg said in 2017 that he wanted to save humanity from itself. Elon Musk has been no less pretentious. He acquired Twitter because the future of civilisation needed to have “a common digital town square.” Now he is telling us that the AI is the “biggest inflexion point” since the advent of the homo sapiens. He predicts that AI will be “a new species.”

Elon Musk also warns us that time will soon come when no job will be needed. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when AI godfather Geoffrey Hinton advises us “to get a job in plumbing.” He is now warning us that AI has its own mind and that a more advanced form of AI would inevitably become unruly, even dangerous. By buying social media platforms, the super-rich and tech giants have become political gatekeepers. It is a new stage on which modern politics is played. Maybe soon a robot will win a Nobel Prize.

Some believe robots will one day eliminate the need for intuition and serendipity in research. An AI agent could soon be a freelance scientist. Have we come to the end of history? Kevin Kelly, author of The Inevitable, says that in the near future, “everyone alive will…write a song, author a book, make a video, craft a weblog and code a programme.” Innovation is not always progress. More so now when it is often at the service of the neoliberals and the super-rich. In seeking a solution, must we fly blind or dance with the devil? What option humanity doesn’t have is to sit pretty while the future is passing us by

(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)