Is Continuous Partial Attention part of Human Evolution?

During my Freshman year in high school, I was asked to write a major project paper.  Armed with only a electric typewriter and access to a local library, I decided to write a comprehensive summary of the engineering principles used in Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions spanning 80 single spaced pages.   The only way I could do this was to focus completely on the task for hours at a time, reading, analyzing, writing, typing.  There was no internet, no mobile devices, and no personal computer which enabled easy editing.

As an undergraduate at Stanford I wrote 3 books by isolating myself from all distractions and using an early word processor, finishing the manuscripts by pure strength of will.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve avoided multitasking, since I’ve found that I cannot produce a quality product while thinking about many topics simultaneously.

I’m a product of the 1960’s, growing up without technology, taught via lecture style classwork without the benefit of multimedia.

I advise many millenials, including my daughter, who was born in 1993, the same year Tim Berners Lee invented the world wide web.   She has not experienced a day on earth without an internet connection.

My mother grew up in an era before the fax machine when the handwritten letter and the land line telephone were the only means of communication.

Each of us has a different approach to work, communication, and learning.    We represent the voice mail, email, and texting generations.

As I interact with many young people, I find that they cannot easily disconnect or focus on a single task.   They believe that staying up all night, surfing the internet, watching youtube and texting while doing school work is an effective means of learning.

They truly think differently.

I’ve met many young people with ADHD.   I’ve watched many young people who struggle with depression and lack the resilience to deal with adversity, often because they expect instant gratification and immediate solutions to every problem they encounter.

At first, I thought such behavior was a failure of society to train the next generation, but I’ve come to realize that humans are evolving to develop a different set of values, cognitive processes, and workflow.

The challenges that my brain was optimized to solve no longer exist.   Creating an 80 page thesis in 1976 was more a battle with an electric typewriter and correction tape than an information synthesis exercise.   Searching through old paper books in a library is a skill that most do not need and required hours of inefficient throw away work because separating the intellectual wheat from the chaff was a manual exercise.   A search engine does in seconds what took me weeks.

Today’s student needs superior data filtering skills and needs to know the appropriate uses of internet resources from Wikipedia (crowd sourced non-authoritative commentary) to Google Scholar.   Today’s student needs to master social media to leverage the wisdom of the crowd.    Today’s student has no need to memorize vast quantities of material because it is fully indexed and always available at the touch of a button.

The capacity to multi-task, to have the reflexes to navigate a fast paced highly graphical user interface, and to leverage the filtering done by machines rather than the human brain is adaptive to excel in the future of human civilization.

Today’s young people are artistic, humble, creative, and lower key than my generation.  They do not expect to own as much stuff as their parents and they do not plan to pursue the same career options.

Ultimately it will require years to understand the consequences of the continuous partial attention, multi-tasking and the values of the millenials.  However, considering the skills needed in a world with global interconnectedness, instantaneous viral communication of every event, and infinite authorship with limited editing, I am increasingly convinced that humans are evolving and we are witnessing the future of human kind, not a pathology that needs to be cured.

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