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Selective Attention 

The wonderful communications and educational tools based around the Internet so narrow our focus that we can discount, and often never hear, the very ideas and opinions that might expand our intelligence.

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Something is quietly happening to us. Very quietly. So quietly that it's probable we don't even recognize it's happening. Will we recognize it this summer when it expands to our kids and grandkids?

Or will we take another step toward ensuring the next generation develops little capacity for critical thinking?

This summer is when LeapFrog's Text and Learn, a hand-held personal assistant for toddlers, goes on the market to further narrow our national obsession with ourselves. That's right, you can soon get your 2-year-old a personal digital assistant.

As America has turned more and more to microcasting, Blackberries and the Internet over the past decade — forcing venerable publications such as The Christian Science Monitor and U.S. News & World Report to trim back their printed editions — we've failed to recognize that we are also suffering more and more from what communication theorists call “selective attention, perception and retention.” We pay attention to what we already care about because we already care, remembering primarily information that reassures us we should care for the concepts and media that we already pay attention to.

Instead of growing up today, in short, mentally we're growing in.

The wonderful communications and educational tools based around the Internet so narrow our focus that we can discount, and often never hear, the very ideas and opinions that might expand our abilities and intelligence. Some thinkers suggest we could be reverting to the pre-print days when all any individual human could know was what was immediate for that person. Today, after all, we can dwell so deeply into any subject — from Barack Obama's Cabinet picks to Paris Hilton's next video to “Scrubs” to MySpace — that we fail to notice dozens, and maybe hundreds, of other ideas that might expand our knowledge, and perhaps, provide us the basis for thinking outside the infamous box.

Could this be damaging our ability to innovate as individuals and as a nation?

According to Mark Bauerlein in “The Dumbest Generation,” it can. And is. Taking a few dozen state, national and local studies from a dozen different perspectives, the former head of the National Endowment for the Arts' research arm concludes that the bottom line of all the communications wonders is that we use them to make ourselves more important in our own minds, therefore missing much of the truly important information circulating the world today.

Hence, this summer we'll begin by beginning a little earlier.  We'll start buying our babies texting opportunities.

After all, when we Americans discovered we were losing our competitiveness a generation ago, we started giving every child who showed up a trophy. And today Ford, Chrysler and General Motors are prominent on the bailout list while bankers who managed to lose billions still think they deserve huge bonuses.

In the old days when we read newspapers, in turning to our preferred section, such as sports, we at least flipped past political, society and economic news and pulled out the comics to hand to the kids. We may not have gotten the nuances of important news but we received some awareness. Today, our browser takes us straight to what we already care about, say, Michelle Obama's newest dress. Or the bikini girl from “American Idol.” Or the latest collapse of the Chicago Cubs.

Netflicks and Tivo both make recommendations for me, presuming that I don't have time to think my own thoughts, while Amazon has been telling me what to buy even longer than my wife.

When I moved to Charlottesville four years ago, walking to one of the downtown book sellers always elicited responses from half the people I said howdy too, but now with the Blackberries and cell conversations and iPhones, for all practical purposes my voice is silent.

More and more, as we Americans acknowledge others more seldom, it seems that each of us is increasingly prone to believe, somehow, that the world revolves around me and mine.

According to Bauerlein's “Dumbest Generation,” the great communications tools of the past decade have taught America's youth one primary concept — that it does revolve around them. Nine of the top 10 Web sites for the under-30-crowd are social networking sites, he points out, and, on average, today's youth spend at least four hours a day with some kind of entertainment screen while, by every standard he analyzed, they know less real information than their parents.

On the screen and working with an alter ego (or not) one can so center one's world that it's easily possible to grow up assured that there are no rules that apply to me, even if the me in question is not a Michael Phelps or a Tom Daschle. It's not uncommon now in my college town to see a car full of students, none talking to their fellow passengers because they've all got cells and iPods in their ears and none, certainly, noticing any humans outside the car.

So our American response is to begin tunnel vision at age 2? S

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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