American voters paralyzed in a technological
world of distraction and disinterest
Suppose the season premier of LOST airs the same night as one of the presidential debates. What percentage of Americans is likely to sit down to watch the candidates duke it out over illegal immigrants and economic reform? For all of the candidates, this is one tug-of-war in which the battle is, quite literally, lost.
In his “Just How Stupid Are We?,” Rick Shenkman, associate professor of history at George Mason University argues that Americans aren’t stupid in a literal sense–they just don’t take enough interest in issues that count. “American voters don’t know enough because, with our entertainment, they talk about the things they find interesting,” Shenkman says, “and they don’t find politics interesting.”
Shenkman research has found that only two out of every five citizens can name the three branches of government, and only one in seven can find Iraq on a map. These statistics are startling when the many educational opportunities available to Americans today are compared to those of the nation’s founding fathers. With education more accessible than it was a century ago, it’s a wonder how people know less about government and politics than their ancestors did.
“If you asked them to articulate the difference between the two political parties, only 10 percent could not come up with something back then,” he says. “In the 1940s, six in 10 Americans had not even gone past the eighth grade.” Shenkman argues today, many Amercans make it to college and yet, today’s voters are less knowledgeable about basic politics and government.
Except it’s not that Americans today are less smart than they were before–it’s that they don’t take an active interest to know more.
Could it be that our attention is divided between the TV, the Internet and the iPhone?
It would be too simplistic to define the problem in such terms. In fact, University of Florida emeritus professor of psychology Keith Berg says certain levels of stimulation allow a person to focus more. It the basis of prescribing ADHD kids medications like Ritalin. The extra stimulation provided by Ritalin actually lowers the activity of attention-deficit children and adults.
The theory is that individuals with ADHD compensate with hyperactivity because they lack natural stimulus provided by drugs such as Ritalin. That is also why some students find it easier to study with music playing, or why someone playing a video game gives it complete attention.
But Maggie Jackson, author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” insists technological advancements have placed Americans in a “climate of distraction,” the same climate which has kept them from taking an interest in, not only politics, but any issue worth deeper thought.
How ironic it is then that technologies that distract us from “nitty-gritty issues” are not being taken advantage of for their potential. Technology has made all the information accessible, yet not enough Americans make use of it. “We’re creating new forms of ignorance,” Jackson says. “It’s one thing to have ignorance based on a lack of information, it’s another thing to have a lack of will.”
It seems as if technology, along with the lack of interest, has kept Americans from involving in deeper thought or relationships. They have become satisfied with skimming even with regard to issues for which, Shenkman says, they can’t afford to be distracted or misinformed:
“Ignorant voters are sitting ducks for wily politicians. If they don’t get smarter, we’ll have more Katrinas, more Iraqs.”
A University of Maryland survey found that even after the 9/11 Commission dispelled rumors of Saddam’s Hussein’s involvement in the September 11th attacks, over half of the American population continued to believed he was responsible and used this as justification to invade Iraq.
As Shenkman states, “we don’t have a majority of voters who are thinking.”
But at least the country’s corporate leaders, educators, and parents have finally become worried by the nation’s obsession with “minutia” and lack of thought, Jackson has found that some companies have already implemented “white space,” a room or block of time designed solely for uninterrupted, unwired refuge of deep thought,” which seems t be a step in the right direction.
“I think the problem is being recognized. People are trying to dial down the climate of distraction.”
While the move toward sharpening the attention spans of Americans is gradually being implemented, Shenkman’s call for a revival in political interest may take more time to be heard. He says it would require a crash course in civics, resurgence in political parties, unions, and a participation in mass institution.
“I want to live in a country of smart voters,” Shenkman says. Whether his dream will ever come true, we won’t know. But as for now, it looks as if this goal may be far-fetched.