Dystopian Futures Are So Hot Right Now

“Twitter will make children illiterate in 20 years", says novelist Howard Jacobson.

This was the headline that made recent news, which yet again, obliges us to visit the question of whether technology is rotting the minds of our young people. We are seeing no end to these sensationalist statements, and it’s time to debunk some of these ‘facts’ made in isolation and rooted in personal experience.

Jacobson says “we will have children who can’t read, who don’t want to read”, and claims that his concentration has been “shot” by his computer screen. So, could there be any truth in Jacobson’s argument or is his statement a mere fad, backed up by the fear of the unknown?

There have been studies that work in his favour, Pew Research Centre USA, surveyed 2,500 teachers and found that 87% felt modern technologies were creating an "easily distracted generation with short attention spans".

But, in that same survey, 77% thought that the internet had a "mostly positive" impact on students' research work, whilst Common Sense Media found that teachers favoured the use of technology when it came to finding information and multitasking, ultimately helping rather than hurting our young people.

These stats, tell us that technology does implicate the way young people consume and digest information today. And yes, you do need attention span to read most novels but surely this isn’t an adequate prediction of generations of illiterate children? Let us look at what’s actually happening in the book market.

The number of Young Adult titles published more than doubled between 2002 and 2012, jumping from 4,700 to over 10,000. On average there are now 30,000 YA books published annually.

The number of Young Adult e-books published have exponentially exploded, far exceeding the number of adult e-books published in percentage growth.In other words, the Young Adult book market is thriving. Surely if these books weren’t being bought or read, they wouldn’t be being published?

So what’s going on? Are we falling into the trap of thinking that just because something is new and challenges our norms that it is automatically bad?

Changing Attention Spans

We have accepted that young people are losing the ability to focus on one thing for long periods of time due to high levels of stimulation in everyday environments.

But is this true? A 2017 article by Simon Maybin for the BBC traced the origin of the key stat that people love to tout- the decline in attention span from 12 to 8 seconds. Maybin found that The Statistic Brain, the website in which the stat originated, didn’t have any viable research to back this statement up.

After speaking to various experts in the field it transpires that attention span is entirely task dependent. So the attention span of a young person reading an absorbing and exciting novel that they have chosen to spend time on might differ from reading an old-fashioned textbook in the classroom.

The screen therefore doesn’t really appear to be the problem. Distraction is distraction- whether it’s mixed sex classes or doodling in your notebook.

The difference is that the world has evolved, but teaching and expectation of how young people should consume information has not. How can we blame young people their lack of focus when what we are feeding them feels ridiculously slow and cumbersome compared to everything else they consume?

Maybe in the future we will tell stories differently; maybe they will be bite sized multi-sensory experiences that immerse people fully. But fear that the next generation will be illiterate doesn’t seem to be well founded.

So whilst dystopian fantasy might be so hot right now in the YA book market, it isn’t necessarily the future of our young people.