August 03, 2003
How Are New Media Causing Minds To Develop?

Writing for the MIT Technology Review Henry Jenkins, director of the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies, argues that the new media technologies are causing human minds to develop to more easily switch between and process multiple information sources.

Contemporary aesthetic choices—the fragmented, MTV-style editing, the dense layering of techno music, the more visually complex pages of some contemporary comic books—reflect consumers' desires for new forms of perceptual play and their capacity to take in more information at once than previous generations. Think for a moment about the scrawl—the layering of informational windows—in today's TV news. Like Arcadia’s minigames, there is a trick: any given bit of text is simplified compared to previous news discourse. Such graphical busyness also has an advantage—we can see the interrelationship between stories and pay attention to simultaneous developments. We probably don't read everything on screen, but we monitor and flit between different media flows.

This kind of argument is frequently given a negative spin with the argument that younger people have shorter attention spans. Is that really true? Or is that just another case of older generations always seeing decay in the younger generations?

My guess is that the effect of the modern forms of media is not uniform. At one extreme there are most for whom the web, hundreds of satellite TV channels, XM Radio or Sirius satellite radio, video games, MP3s loaded into Walkmans, and like technologies just fragment their minds and media become something akin to a drug that stimulates and provides a thrill. The mind just reacts, learns little, and is mostly in a state of continuous distraction. A poorly trained mind that is innately easily distracted may well suffer from the easy availability of so many forms of media in the same way that a drug abuser suffers from easy availability of recreational drugs.

But consider the limitations of the pre-internet era. The older information sources take more time and money to access. We do not all live right next to a huge university library. Any physical library of books and other hardcopy publications will not have many of the kinds of information that are now available on the Internet. For minds equipped to handle the modern media the many media sources become something akin to a symphony of sources that can be creatively orchestrated to provide convenient combinations of information that provide the raw material for analysis to reach a larger number of new syntheses and insights than otherwise would have been possible.

We certainly have different information contents in our minds as a result of the new media. For some people that means that they know more about their favorite celebrities. But for others (e.g. people who spend way too many hours per day searching for content to post about on their blogs) they know more about political and economic developments or discoveries in science or how demographic and technological trends are interacting to cause social changes both harmful and beneficial. Generally speaking, people are more likely to look up and know things that would have been too much troulbe for them to look up previously.

The interesting question is whether the experience of the internet and other modern media is causing minds to develop in a different fashion. If youth really are able to handle more media feeds at once is it simply because their minds are younger and more energetic? Or by first encountering the modern media at a younger age with minds that have more malleability are their minds being more reshaped by the experience? Is this experience with modern media making their cognitive processes qualitatively different from the minds of older generations?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 August 03 10:29 AM  Comm Tech Society

Grady said at September 4, 2003 8:39 AM:

Chris and I has a little discussion about attention span at CoffeeBlog. Read the comments. He and I agree that attention span is something that must be developed, like muscles. My theory is that it's mostly economics that are promoting the shallowness of information through the costly mediums of print, radio, and TV. The fact that there's more information is just an attempt to make an excuse for the shallowness. Obviously, there's a place more and more people are going for their information which bucks the trend of being more and more costly per-person-reached. It bucks the trend of being more shallow as well, doesn't it?

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