Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Attention Debt (2018-03-05)
Image from classic Doctor Who episode 'Snake Dance', January 1983
Based on what I have seen, read, and heard both online and off, there is a broad consensus in canada, if not north america, that everyone has shorter attention spans these days. It is a remarkable consensus that I find mystifying. The same people who tell me this in person, including people with a range of education levels and political interests, have typically done so in contexts where their own attention span has been anything but short. They were taking part in an extended conversation with me for example – I highly doubt it was my own self that inspired their fixation – or were taking break from an intensive session of texting or tweeting about an issue between friends. Or since I stumbled on the topic, they were telling me in loving detail about a television programme or computer game that they have been engaged with on a regular basis for days or weeks, explaining intricacies and details or commenting on the quality of the writing. Even those least inclined to dig into the details have a lot to say about the differences, not all positive between old and new programmes and movies. Moving away from pop culture, I can't think of many of them who don't have a more or less consistent hobby or sport they attend to, although the hobby may be carefully camouflaged as home renovations or the like. These folks are from a wide range of ages, where is this shortened attention span?
Is it possible that we have here a widely held idea that is based on a flawed measurement? In the 1980s the consensus crisis of learning and knowledge was that literacy was falling off a cliff, why even elders were reading less and less. Except it turned out that the basis for these claims were surveys demonstrating what turned out to be the early stages in the collapse of mass market newspapers and magazines. There is far more to read out there than newspapers and magazines, and that is just the least of the reasons those publications are generally in trouble to this day. Perhaps presently, when the measure of "attention span" is apparently whether school children can be persuaded to read the terrible textbooks they are subjected to in school for more than ten minutes at a time, or people browsing websites online and spending less than a minute on most of them. Both ridiculous measures of no more and no less than how awful school textbooks often are, alas, and how awful most websites are, or else how many websites are designed as the semi-equivalent of reference books and headline tickers. In other words, media that fail in their purpose or are not designed for extended attention in the first place.
In one of her later essays, Jane Jacobs mused that maybe so many children are hyperactive today not because they are literally sick or earning disabled, but because they are understimulated. If anyone has red Ken Robinson's books or listened to his ted or rsa talks, this may sound a bit familiar. He is arguing from how many kids today constantly have perpetually beeping and whirring phones, immersive video games, and movies and television shows cut and scored to maximize excitement, so school is horribly boring in comparison. Jacobs was arguing from a different cause, pointing to how children have been pressured out of playing outside in non-structured environments in unstructured time. Instead parents are urged to effectively give the kids each a daytimer and book their kids solid, and can risk severe censure if they allow their children to play outside or go for a walk. As a result, those kids have fewer opportunities to learn self-reliance, play imaginatively, and do neat physical stuff like climb trees and generally horse around. Thinking over both these arguments, I don't think this trouble is exclusive to children. Just do an online search for examples of office environments, even "campuses" like google and apple have built. The monotony and sense of ever present surveillance and control is uncanny. That can go double for what is rapidly becoming the most common workplace type, the franchise restaurant or store.
So is it really that everyone's attention span is less, or is it that their attention span for certain types of media or jobs is found wanting by particular employers and representatives of corporations? There is also a remarkable consensus that in the world right now more choices of entertainment, work, or life paths are available than ever before. Questionable as this is on a practical basis beyond entertainment, it is hardly surprising that there are still enough options available that if a person finds a given book or game insulting, boring, or just plain lousy, they don't spend more attention on it than identifying it as not worth the time requires. Or it could be that right now, the hegemonic styles of books, movies, television shows, and news in english are effectively designed in snippets and dizzying jump cuts because that supposedly will make them "pop" and grab the ever elusive attention of the audience, whose members must be wondering how the hell they are supposed to successfully pay attention when every other minute there is a jump cut. Aliette de Bodard wrote an intriguing article touching on this point for the science fiction and fantasy novelists blog in 2010, Narrative, Resonance and Genre. It is well worth a stretch of your attention. (Top)