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Tech’s Early Zealots Are Singing a Different Tune: Has Age Made Them Wiser or Just Older?

Maybe you haven’t noticed that we’ve become the nation with the collective attention span of a tsetse fly. Or that we’re a nation utterly convinced that the more things you can do at the same time the more gifted you are.

The signs of the impending wreckage are everywhere. In London, they’ve padded certain phone poles to stop overly focused texters from walking into them. In the U.S., approximately 40% of automobile accidents (one occurs every 13 seconds) are based on inattentiveness, with cellphone distractions being the primary cause. Facebook makes it way too easy to fritter away the day trading repartees with kindergarten buddies, leaving you wondering where the day went. Our kids are more comfortable texting it than saying it. The latest study from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds our kids spend more than 50 hours of screen time each week. Not 50 serial hours though; they just multitask screen time better than the rest of us. (The homework/iPod/Facebook/texting/TV combo is fave.)

But this week was the high tech equivalent of the fat lady singing. The original zealots have started to defect and ponder what tech hath wrought.

The first time I heard Jaron Lanier speak, he was a dreadlocked college student talking about something he coined “virtual reality.” He talked of avatars floating around new worlds. Well, he’s just written a new book (that’s right, a book) called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. In the book he laments that some of the Internet’s most basic tenets like anonymity and crowdsourcing (the notion that the crowd always knows best) have made the Internet a place where quality information is hard to come by.

Last week in Davos at the World Global Summit, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, slipped off the tech bandwagon when he suggested that kids would have a “deep reading” problem—reading for deeper cognition—because of the proliferation of instantaneous (never mind small-screened) devices.

And on Tuesday evening (for the few of you who don’t watch On Demand), you can see Digital Nation, a PBS special devoted to the yin/yang of living digitally. Does it bring us further apart or closer together? Open our minds to new ideas or shut them down? There you’ll find Douglas Rushkoff, another early cheerleader for all things digital and a co-producer of the program. Rushkoff makes the Internet sound a bit like Woodstock—the ideal that will never be realized again and admits that he does not use the Internet for fun.

There’s some truth to the notion that, like Woodstock became Altamont, the Internet became big business. But there’s even more truth and an imperative to the notion that we’ve got to learn some new digital survival skills. Those who know how to get the information they need and then get out will be the smart ones moving forward. Those who learn to control the Internet, and not vice versa will win. I could surf the web all day for more anecdotes in defense of my story. Discipline, willpower, and knowing that none of you have the attention to read this in its entirety trump more surfing.