Is Our World Becoming A Short Attention Span Theater?

First and foremost, let me apologize for the length of this blog post.  It might take more than three minutes to get through.  As I finish it up I realize there are more than 2000 words to this post.  If you are stout of heart…or at least of eyesight….please read on.

When I was a child in the 1970’s and 1980’s, pretty much the only i-anything we had was to be told that there was no ‘I’ in team.  There was no iPod, iPad, iPhone, iTouch…….computers were huge, warehouse filling equipment that no one could even dream of having room for in their home.  A tablet was something you used chalk on to figure out math problems.  A laptop was where you sat to have someone read you a story or give you a hug.  If you wanted to read a book you either went to a bookstore or borrowed it from the library.  Nothing was downloaded.  You didn’t worry about having enough ‘memory storage’ to obtain the story….you simply held it in your hands and read it, or had it read to you.

If you wanted to know something, or simply ‘more’ about a subject, you asked someone who (hopefully) knew, and listened to their answer….or you consulted the encyclopedia.  Certainly there were ‘informative’ television shows and documentaries where you could learn as you were entertained, and the one night per week that Disney was on (yes, one night per week only back in the stone age of my childhood), broadcast on one of the four channels (yes, only four channels were available prior to my teens), you could be treated to a wonderful visual exploration of a faraway land that you might otherwise never get to see.  Hunters explored the plains of Africa…..divers brought the undersea kingdom to vivid life, polar bears were four feet from your face, rather than four thousand miles away…..and children like me sat and stared in amazement at what was being presented to them.  We watched the channel we had selected, because otherwise you had to get up and go to the television to change the channel manually.  There was such a thing as a remote control to change your station (the first ones were made in the 1950’s and were called ‘lazy bones’)  but they were not included with every television (of which most families were lucky to own even one) so channel surfing and multi window t.v. screens to view four shows at once were not yet thought of, and there was no DVR to record one show while you watched another, nor any ‘on demand’ programming to watch whenever you had the chance.  If you missed something you wanted to see, you hoped it would be repeated, and sometimes you were lucky; but most often you were not.

There are days when I worship the almighty WWW and the advancement of technology that I have witnessed in my lifetime.  I can carry hundreds and hundreds of photos and videos of my kids with me in a four by six inch device that weighs less than two pounds.  Due to this device (a smart phone) I am never without something to ‘fill my time’ if I am meeting a friend for dinner and they are running late.  I can carry on a conversation with my mother on the phone and move to any room in my home during this conversation and am not restricted by reaching the end of a cord and risking ripping the phone out of the wall (yes, my childhood home phone used to hang on the wall and I couldn’t get more than four feet from it to carry on a conversation).  Even though I am not an avid viewer of television programming, if I do want to sit down and wile away an hour or two, I have thousands and thousands of titles to choose from in just about any genre I could possibly imagine……horror films, documentaries, war reenactments, dating programs, dance competitions, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.

By the time I reached high school I was ‘forced’ to read my first Charles Dickens novel….David Copperfield.   The book is (depending on the size of the edition you select) at least 800 pages long.  This was presented to 12/13 years old children and required reading (at least in my school).  I managed to get through it, but it was a chore, even being an avid reader myself.  In the early 2000’s I wrote an email (what has been referred to as the downfall of the U.S. postal system) to my freshman English/Literature teacher thanking her for the foundation given to me back then of one of my (adult) favorite authors…Charles Dickens.  She replied to me and I found that sometime in the 20 year span since my freshman year of high school and our present day exchange….David Copperfield was no longer the book that was made required reading for freshman…..Great Expectations (my favorite Dickens novel) had replaced it (400/500 pages) over time as Copperfield was simply too ‘long’ a book for the freshman attention span.

Over time our society has become flooded with information… large part thanks to technology.  No longer do you wait 20 years, 20 days, or 20 minutes even for a political scandal to become public knowledge. No longer do people wait for their photos to be developed and returned to them.  One hour photo, a HUGE ‘step forward’ in my younger days, has become one second photo….you don’t get back 20 blurry shots and 3 good ones any longer…you simply delete the blurry ones and take a few more.

Technology and information are a wonderful thing.  But like all ‘advancements’ we make as a society and as a people… closely are we monitoring the ‘cost’ of these advancements, and the impact on future generations?  How do we teach ‘patience’ to people when virtually anything they want is available to them in under one minute? How do we develop any kind of a rapport with others when we spend the majority of our time bent over our ‘devices’ rather than interacting with others face to face?  How do we entice people to focus and ‘pay attention’ when they can subversively slip their phone out of their pocket and start scrolling through their social media news feed?  What kind of absorption of information can happen when there are fifteen pop-up advertisements on either side of the news story and hyperlinks between every paragraph enticing us to learn more and more and more information about unrelated subjects?

Back in 1977, the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon said that ‘…information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’  The more information we are bombarded with and the more devices we have to get/get to this information, what are we cultivating for future generations?

California’s 2011 state budget brought a 50% cut to public library funding.   The United Kingdom lost more than 200 libraries in 2012.

In 2013 Barnes and Noble Booksellers announced that at least 20 stores per year would be closed every year for the next decade. That means the fine art of browsing for books and being able to hold them in your hands and admire the craftsmanship that goes into producing them (even if it’s mass-production) will go by the wayside for many, many people who will find it too far to travel to purchase a new read.

In 2011 the US Postal Service experienced a 5.1 billion dollar loss….largely due to decrease in volume of mail….and 21,000 workers were either eliminated or found their hours reduced as more rural facilities were faced with either fewer hours of operation or complete shuttering.

The community theater in my town, where I had hoped to introduce my kids to participating in the wonders of live performance, which can teach them valuable presentation skills and accountability and the fine art of developing a rapport with another living, breathing human being, closed (although the ‘theater company’ will continue to exist) earlier this year.

So many things are falling victim to the glut of information and ‘digital’ means we have of acquiring it.

But in case this all just seems like a ‘gloom and doom’ post……not everything is on the decline…..some things are increasing.

The number of  children in the United States diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit And Hyperactivity Disorder) increased 3% between 1997 and 2006.

Between 2005 and 2011, the increase in ADHD diagnoses was 5%.

(The above ‘data’ is courtesy of the CDC).

Lest I seem a hypocrite – my kids both have an ADHD diagnosis.  They both receive classroom ‘accommodations’ for this diagnosis that include sitting nearer the teacher (or the front of the room), more time to complete tasks, and frequent ‘sensory’ breaks. I am grateful for this, whereas it does seem to be showing an improvement in their ability to learn.  But it does lead me to wonder……’if’ the glut of information and the means by which we presently acquire it IS in part ‘responsible’ for the decreased attention span of our children…what happens when EVERY child in EVERY classroom is so impacted by this deficit of attention that ALL of them require ‘preferential seating’ and ‘more time’ and ‘sensory breaks’?  Will each child get their own individual teacher to sit near?  Will classroom education become ‘seating in the round’ with the instructor in the middle of the room so that no one is more than two feet from her/him at any time?  Will school days be extended from six/seven hours to eight or ten, to model the work/commute life that most full-time employees experience?  What happens when the world is so flooded with information and side-bars and pop ups and hyperlinks and no one can retain what they are learning because they are unable to invest the time to relegate it to their short term memory?  Has ADHD really become THAT big an ‘issue’ in our country, or have we ‘forced’ it to be an issue by bombarding children with far more information than their young minds can really handle and commit to memory and pushing them into become multi-taskers before they can hold a fork in their hand?  More and more I see advertisements for products to ‘teach your child to read by age 2’. What’s next? Teach your child to read while still in the womb?

To be fair, I wrote this post on my computer and looked up information to support what I was writing about on the same device. I didn’t make a trip to the library, nor pick up the phone and speak to any live person….I gathered the information in under a few minutes. I do not purport to be an expert on the subject matter.  I wouldn’t even call myself an informed amateur on it…..I know a tiny bit about what I am writing about…..and hopefully I’ll be able to retain the knowledge I have today acquired.

I am also not trying to convert anyone to being less of a ‘techie’ and adopting the habits of yesteryear.  I simply wrote this to ‘point out’ information to anyone who has invested the time to read through it (courtesy of their electronic device of choice), and perhaps present a different perspective on the topic. I admit that I spend a portion of nearly every day on the computer or some other electronic device.  I also spend a great deal of time reading books…real, tangible,  hardcover books. I get out to a local walking path with as much frequency as time and weather allow.   I see friends, face to face, as schedules accommodate, but it’s not nearly enough.  Sometimes I hand write cards and letters to people still.  And sometimes I just sit and stare at the walls and think about everything I have seen/learned during the day and how it affected me.

What do I believe for myself in terms of how much time I spend with or on any one thing?  I find that I still place much stock in the words that are credited to Socrates from more than 2500 years ago.

‘Everything in moderation. Nothing in excess.’

Socrates believed that people needed to learn to choose the ‘mean’ in all things and avoid the extremes (either complete devotion or complete avoidance) on either side.

To me it sounds like good advice that still applies to the world today.



2 thoughts on “Is Our World Becoming A Short Attention Span Theater?

  1. Alison says:

    I worry about the same thing. It’s sad to sit on a train and see 99% of passengers with earbuds in, or texting or checking Facebook. No one makes small talk with strangers anymore. Kids don’t learn how to recognize physical cues to understand social interactions. Much as I love my smartphone, I miss talking to people. I love this blog post. It’s full of so much truth.

  2. I for one find small talk with people excruciating to a very large degree, but I do try to buck my nature and engage with others more often. It’s hard, certainly, for me…I am far more comfortable talking for hours with a good friend than for minutes with a stranger or even an acquaintance, but I do it nevertheless. It’s not only good for me, it sends a message to the boys as well that there is a need to interact with others, and you can’t just isolate yourself from the world all the time.

    One of the biggest reasons I’m happy to have found a place to take the boys to karaoke is that it’s getting them up off their feet and in front of people and doing something ‘visible’….and my hope for that is that they will grow to have little to no ‘fear’ of or inability to interact with others. That they will be okay with it. I hope to involve them in theater…for the same reason. The social skills that I and others of my generation learned are slipping away it seems. I hope to counteract that, to some degree, with my two. It may be an uphill battle, but….at least I’ll try.

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