Attention is most of all you need

When was the last time you read 500 pages uninterruptedly? 

My friends have told me I possess a remarkable speed in reading, and indeed, I have thanked fate for having that skill. However, I must candidly concede that my propensity for sustained focus and my capacity to digest 100 pages in succession have somewhat diminished since starting college at Duke. 

There exists one culprit to which I ascribe this decline — the pernicious grip that smartphones exert upon my life, as opposed to my earlier school life in India.  

In middle and high school, the possession of any form of mobile device — even a rudimentary flip phone — was strictly prohibited within school premises. It was not until my enrollment at Duke that I opened an account on Instagram or Snapchat. Thus, before college, my cognitive faculties remained untainted by the influx of abbreviated video content, encompassing TikTok videos, Instagram reels and YouTube shorts. Whereas our previous generations succumbed to the intellectual erosion caused by serialized television dramas, the deleterious impact of sub-10-second videos on contemporary cognitive faculties far surpasses the former. 

It is amazing how much of our student life has become contingent on our smartphones. Even meals are paid for at WU by "tapping the phone." Look, I love using my laptop to write out assignments in LaTeX on Overleaf; however, there are occasions when I entertain the notion that my entire educational journey should not be so intricately linked to my personal computing device. I yearn for assignments that require handwritten, timed essays, devoid of any online resources. Furthermore, I advocate for a reduction in the reliance on calculators within mathematics and physics courses. 

The influx of technological advancements in the United States typically reaches India after a discernible time lag. Thus, I am part of the last generation of India who remembers the times before smartphones attained omnipresence. 

During the mid-2000s in India, success in competitive collegiate entrance examinations hinged upon factors such as accessibility and availability of preparatory resources. Currently, such resources are readily accessible and downloadable from the internet — students now have a problem of too much material to choose from. Consequently, the quintessential determinant of success or failure in examinations has become something completely different: 

The ability to not get distracted. 

Henceforth, each academic cycle will create successive cohorts of 18-year-olds who will rue the squandered hours on Instagram instead of dedicating more time to limits, continuity and differentiability. If only I had refrained from watching videos featuring recurrent refrains such as "Bones" by Imagine Dragons, "Polozhenie" by Zedline or "Tourner Dans Le Vide" by Indila! 

I am not a technophobe; indeed, I recognize the internet as one of the greatest achievements of civilization, and I duly appreciate the educational utility of platforms such as YouTube, particularly for learning concepts in programming. Nonetheless, I do condemn the pervasive spread of ‘short’ content. 

No one can learn Docker or Kubernetes through a five-minute video, let alone an under-60-second video with the AI voiceover and generated subtitles. The most efficacious instructional materials on YouTube tend to span approximately one hour each — akin to the duration of a lecture at Duke itself! 

Personally, I feel happy about my marked enhancement of reading, writing, and understanding mathematical "proofs’"during my undergraduate tenure — a skill in which I used to harbor self-doubt as a first-year. Foremost among the catalysts for this transformation is my exposure to lengthy, intellectually demanding fiction, such as from Tolstoy and Krasznahorkai.  

If one can mentally keep track of the intricate web of relationships among ten different characters from "War and Peace," or the convoluted syntax of a postmodern novel in one’s working memory, then one is better equipped to conceptualize the full structure of propositions, lemmas, theorems and corollaries from a paper published at the Symposium on Theory of Computing (STOC). 

If you are struggling with finishing readings for a Philosophy class, go try reading Dale Purves’ "Neuroscience." It will help.  

The paper that kicked off the generative artificial intelligence revolution is called “Attention is All You Need.” The analogy between the pivotal role of attention in machines and its significance for humans merits contemplation, despite the irony that we are using what we know about machines to better understand humanity. Could it be possible that an individual's perceived level of confidence — or, conversely, their lack thereof — in a particular academic domain hinges upon their ability to sustain a coherent trajectory of thought without succumbing to interruptions? 

This gives more reasons to be frustrated at any product or service whose profitability relies on exacerbating the erosion of attention spans — entities thriving on fostering prolonged periods of engagement characterized by a state of cognitive suspension and the perpetual cycle of mindless doom-scrolling. 

Your attention span was taken from you. Every time you get a five-second story update on Instagram, the electrochemical stimuli cause specialized neurons in the ventral tegmental area to release dopamine into the nucleus accumbens. My maximalist friend asked me to continue this paragraph with further intricate descriptions of biological phenomena in a blatant attempt to increase the literary poignancy of the description of how short-form content alters the brain and the way dopamine regulates rewards and addiction. As per my friend, the contrast would come out better if one sentence had ordinary English such as “when you want to relax a bit and be happy,” and the sentence following that overstimulated the reader by cramming in references to the pedunculopontine nucleus, gamma-aminobutyric acid and substantia nigra pars reticulata.

For space constraints, I only kept the first sentence — you can infer and interpret the inductive implications of the intended ideas.

I have found scientific literature on artificial intelligence from the 1980s and 1990s remarkably beneficial for this self-introspection. Such papers tend to be written in a more informal language. If you want to learn how to learn, go read the early papers of Yaser Abu-Mostafa, David Rumelhart, Rodney Brooks or Jurgen Schmidhuber. How information theorists and early scholars of machine learning have formalized, modeled and structuralized notions of learning and meta-learning have helped me learn how to learn better and helped me learn how to learn how to learn better. 

Technological accelerationism devoid of introspection effectuates irreversible transformations in societal structures, cultural paradigms, and axiological frameworks. I fully concede that such paradigm shifts are often inevitable. Yet I ardently beseech: resist for once, refuse for once, while fully being cognizant of the eventual futility of your actions. 

Consciously, I have endeavored to disentangle numerous facets of my existence from my smartphone.  

Possessing an Android device devoid of an NFC chip ensures I do not use a mobile DukeCard.  

The cyclical release of new Apple products every two years elicits considerable enthusiasm among my peers, yet serves to fortify my resolve to eschew entanglement with the Apple ecosystem. The appeal of Vision Pro eludes my comprehension. 

I carry physical cash in most places — throughout my undergraduate years, I have had less than four Venmo transactions. 

During housing preferences, I prefer quads where my room is locked and unlocked by traditional physical keys, as opposed to DukeCard access. 

Of course, I still carry my smartphone everywhere. One can cut down on calories and eat healthier without abandoning meals altogether. 

The Nobel-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said in the poem “Eyes”: "And I notice in myself a distaste for monkeyish dresses, shrieks and drum beats. What a relief. To be alone with my meditation." 

He could very well be talking about TikTok videos!

Angikar Ghosal is a Trinity senior. His column typically runs on alternating Mondays.


Share and discuss “Attention is most of all you need” on social media.