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April 3, 2014

Human attention threatened by technology, says Professor Wu

By Emily Scharf

It was a crowded Tuesday night in Moot Court Room on March 25 as students, faculty and community members gathered to listen to Tim Wu, professor of law at Columbia University, discuss “human attention” and explore ways to protect it against technology’s grip on society.

Tim WuWu is the author of “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empire,” which examined the evolution of technology — from the radio to the Internet — and its impact on the human brain.

“Master Switch” was rated as a best book of 2010 by the New Yorker and Amazon. Wu is currently in the process of writing another book, which will concentrate on “The Attention Merchants and Consumer Protection,” and he said that this was his first time giving a speech on the unfinished book.

Speaking at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Wu described human attention as something he believes will be increasingly important over the next several decades, adding that in some sense, it is our last and most valuable of resources.

He began his speech by describing scenarios that related to human attention in the past.

For instance, Wu talked about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who in the 70s came up with a more advanced version of the Atari game, “Pong,” in a matter of days. The men reportedly did not sleep the entire time they worked on the project until it was finished.
Similarly, Wu told the story of Jack Kerouac, a writer from the 1950s. According to Wu, Kerouac decided he wanted to write a book so he put together a 120-foot long paper scroll by taping pieces of paper together and he put that scroll in the typewriter and he started typing. “He didn’t leave his apartment for three weeks,” Wu said. “No paragraph breaks, no page breaks — just writing and writing and writing.”

These writings became Kerouac’s first and perhaps most famous novel, “On the Road.” Wu used these examples to demonstrate the state of sustained concentration of focus, which he described as when someone is really focused and able to concentrate on their work.

In today’s world, however, many people can find it very difficult to keep their concentration. Computers are much more advanced and don’t require a scroll of paper, and if a mistake is made, it is deletable. Wu explained that we live in a society that is focused on Facebook and Twitter, as well as constantly checking their email — all things that might provide distraction when one is trying to reach that sustained concentration.

Wu provided some food for thought to the audience, asking “Here, in 2014, with our advanced technologies, with our computers, smart phones, and so forth — would it be harder or easier to do what these men did in earlier years?” Wu’s new book will look at legal ways to control what he calls an ‘attack’ on human attention, such as billboard bans and cell phone bans on airplanes. “Our computers today, while on the one hand are supposed to be a tool to help us grow, are often agents of distraction that pull us away from our tasks,” Wu said.