23 April 2009

Attention Spanning

There's a commonly held opinion that our attention spans are shrinking, and many people attribute that to our rapidly evolving communication and entertainment media. I don't disagree as to the causes for the phenomenon, but I do question that lack of specificity in this summary view of our ability to, and interest, in maintaining attention. I mean, if you take a little time to really examine—

Ooo - lookit - puppies!

What was I saying? Ah, yes: abbreviated attention spans. Was there ever a time in our history when culture didn't seem to be accelerating? You could point to the so-called "dark ages," but what you'd be pointing at would actually be a gap of written record, not some great backward lurch of civilization. No, I believe this sense of cultural acceleration lies more in our psyches and personal perspectives than it does in some larger, more-objective sense of time itself. We are an impatient bunch of creatures. It's part of what motivated us to develop tools and agriculture, and it applies to the human psyche whether you're talking about Twitter or gunpowder. We always want something "better." Ambition and impatience are kissing cousins, at least in my mental genealogy.

I think what we're really talking about when we worry over attention spans is worry over being a part of it all, of being included and/or contributing. I'm talking about more than trending here; perhaps Zeitgeist is a better word, but that still implies a cutting edge, which is more limited than my idea. My idea has less to do with something concrete and static, or even directional, and more to do with movement. Instead of staying ahead in a race, adapting to rhythms and adding something to a dance, maybe. Sometimes we're on the fringe, and sometimes we're setting the beat, but always we want to be in there and a part of it.

Naturally, my idea is going to be an inclusive one. (You can take yourself out of the Unitarian Universalist Sunday sessions, but you can't take the UUSs out of you . . . rself?) But in this case, I tend to be in total agreement with myself, and not just because it's to the advantage of my argument. (I promise. [Myself.]) It may sound like a philosophical argument, and it is, but it's also a practical one. Everything changes, and everything has the potential to change very rapidly, so it's good both to have the willingness to adapt and the centeredness to choose. For me, its akin to the error of multitasking -- namely, that it can't be done effectively. What can be done effectively is to do one thing at a time, and be able to switch tasks rapidly while keeping priorities straight. That can be effective, but true multitasking is a fault to any objective. Unless of course your objective is to make a mess of something.

If our attention spans have, on the whole, gotten shorter, its a result of successful adaptation to our environment, and anyway I don't see it as an irreversible condition. Music can be an amazing salve to a wind-burned attention span. Theatre, too, if one is willing to give it a chance. There's a general idea that entertainment, as such, is also a primary culprit in the criminalizing brevity of our attentions, but there I disagree as well. In fact, entertainment is pretty self-nullifying if it doesn't take us in well enough to influence our sense of time in some way, be it for the better or worse. The word itself, to "entertain," comes from an idea of holding something together. Maybe that refers to people's attentions, and maybe it means keeping the dance alive.


Patrick said...

That article you sent me about how cities hurt our brains points out ways in which our concentration, attention span, and self-control are all compromised by urban living, and for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than not. The same article also said kids with ADHD exhibited fewer symptoms when they were in natural environments.

So, there's that.

Nonetheless, I agree, that as long as we as a species have had a sense of past, and been able to speculate about a future, there has been a prevailing attitude that we were fucking a good thing up very very quickly. Reading some diatribes from the middle ages about how bad things are getting, you'd swear it had been written just yesterday. The only way I do find myself indulging in this thought is noticing how new technologies quickly become necessities. I was out of college before answering machines became ubiquitous. Now I routinely see college kids who can't fathom the idea that they might not answer their cell phones when they ring during class. It simply does not compute. The instructor might as well be speaking Swahili, for all the sense it makes.

LOVE the comment re: multitasking. It's true, it can't be done well. Changing gears quickly, maybe, but multitasking, no. No no no no. Let's start a campaign.

word verification: enscroma. That sounds dirty, which is the only reason I had to share it with you.

Jeff Wills said...

I think that the cities thing has to do with hyperactive survival responses more than rapidly changing gears, but good point taken. Let's go upstate and bird watch! I just have to bring along my iPhone, so I can Tweet about it...

Patrick said...

Oh do, lets. And I'll bring along my electric cattle-prod. Just so you have something else to tweet about, if the birds prove elusive.

Jeff Wills said...

Rockin', robin!