ATTENTION SPAN

 

Thomas Russell Wingate  

December 2011

January 2012  

 

 

 

                   1

 

At the end of 2011, a seemingly reliable source reported that the average attention span in the United States was five seconds.

 

Ten years before, in 2001, it had been twelve minutes.

 

This is a decline of 99.31%.

 

If someone took away that much of your money, you would howl.

 

                   2

 

Americans, another seemingly reliable source tells us, took in three times as much data in 2008 as they did in 1960.

 

The point of the article is that Americans are spilling more than half their data¹ on the floor.

 

You just nodded, didn’t you?

 

Who does not immediately grasp the term datasmog?

 

                   3

 

You can use the Internet to find the newest reports on the damage its addictions are doing to your brain—which was not designed for cyberspace.

 

We have all seen cell phones being used by drivers and pedestrians oblivious to their peril.

 

We have all seen cell phones being used in libraries and other places where quiet is appropriate.

 

The standard of thoughtful consideration has long been yielding to the vice of multitasking, which treats all problems as equally grave, equally pressing, and equally likely to be increased or replaced.

 

Multitasking is a cult of anti-wisdom. It slays the future to flay the present.

 

4

 

It is our universal misfortune that the supply of information expanded exponentially while cultural pressures sponsoring strong decisions weakened.²

 

F. Roger Devlin explains a large part of it: 

 

In any case, the postwar academy swelled to gargantuan proportions. I learned a good metaphor for this process from a vintner. There is an optimal amount of rainfall for producing grapes. Where grapevines continue to be watered past that point, they stop producing more grapes. Instead, they put forth an ever more luxurious profusion of leaves, while the total amount of fruit they bear actually declines.

 

          5

 

Either-or decisions entail formality, hierarchy, and persistence. Unless they are systematically impeded, they tend to produce widespread wealth and happiness.

 

Both-and decisions invite evasion, prolong confusion, squander resources, and provoke contempt.

 

Persons fond of both-and weave a rich rhetoric: better to be “inclusive,” they say, than to be “exclusive.” They would do away with all habits of organization that depend upon either-or.

 

Long attention spans, long time horizons favor either-or (“hard” or “bold”) decisions. Short attention spans, short time horizons favor both-and (“soft” or “safe”) decisions.

 

These styles cannot be smoothly blended.

 

Our public controversies are tectonic plates of soft decisions being crunched upon the plates of hard decisions.³

 

6

 

Reading is a solitary pursuit, not an interactive occasion. Writers must read, and to do this, they must not be interrupted—not even by themselves.

 

For writers, reading is less “the pursuit of happiness” than a duty to explore and reveal the human interior.

 

Reading can, and should, take an emotional toll—and be allowed to do so.

 

 

 

NOTES

 

 

1 In Latin the singular is datum; the plural, data.

   English oral culture mostly uses (one or many) data

   as a singular, but written culture is more likely

   to use (many) data as a plural. Be careful to craft

   sentences to avoid conceptual confusion. See Two Cultures

   on website.

2 See Brain Drain 13,14,16 and Bits of English II 8

   on website.

3 See History for Perspective on website.