Timothy R. Clark: Parental leadership and our poverty of attention

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Student John Rowe practices electronic music DJ skills as he spends hours in his room broadcasting music online.

Associated Press

The world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, grew up in poverty in the heart of Detroit. But his mother wouldn't allow him to slip into patterns of idleness and feelings of despair. She restricted TV-watching to two programs a week and made him turn in two book reports every week as well. Contrast that with the average American child who spends more than 30 hours in front of the television each week, a mirror reflection of the time spent in school. Why aren't we alarmed that we're not more alarmed? When I bring this up in conversation, everyone agrees that it's a calamity. Then we go back to the couch—to watch, instead of being watchful.

I suppose every generation of parents has its forms of so-called benign neglect. We're way beyond anything benign at this point. I keep hearing that kids are over-programmed, that they need more unstructured time, that childhood is fleeting, and that too many children are being co-opted by aspiring parents who want to live vicariously through their junior achievements. These must be the outliers because the data tell a different story.

Most children are under-programmed and under-directed. The problem is that the mass media stands ready to step in as an eager and not-so-benevolent parent. In the last two generations, the mass media has dealt a crushing blow to society, intent on pushing the family, the church and the school to the margins. The digital leviathan reigns supreme as the undisputed superpower of cultural influence. With TV-watching in particular, we've become a duped and sedated society-- indeed, a conquered nation.

In the 1830s, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville came to America and was deeply impressed with what he saw. He observed a vibrant, enterprising and participative democracy, and chronicled his findings in a book every citizen should read, "Democracy in America." My question is this: What would he say if he were to come back for another look? That we are now steadfastly committed to the mindless consumption of insipid, throw-away content. No doubt he would deem our contemporary cultural condition a monumental catastrophe. He would point to our international achievement gap in math and science and say, "Turn the television off and go do your homework". Only then would he entertain a policy discussion about spending-per pupil or teacher-to-student ratios.

More than two generations ago, Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, prophetically observed, "What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

Insightful? Yes. True? Depends. It depends on whether you choose to give your attention to something. In this country we believe not only in property rights, but attention rights as well. But how well do we use them?

Consider the economics of attention. On the supply side, we have more than we used to because we have more discretionary time in absolute terms. Now take the supply side. Same story. We have an exponential increase in the number of sources competing for our attention. So the idea that we have less time as a society is patently false. On the whole, technological innovation continues to create process efficiencies that drip feed us more discretionary time to allocate as we please. We may not have the free time of Victorian aristocrats, but we've got more than any generation before us. The problem is not in the scarcity of supply, but in the allocation of a more abundant supply in the face of relentless demand.

The paradox is that with more free time, more cognitive surplus, we still suffer from an acute poverty of attention. Why? Because we choose to use our time for that which offers no real return on attention.

Let me be clear. I rejoice in the explosion of digital media. I'm a fervent evangelist of the information age. I read about Lincoln learning the law by candlelight and I'm glad I live in the age of the smart phone and the tablet.

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