The Net, Info Overload, & Our Fragmented Attention Spans

by on March 16, 2011 · 3 comments

My thanks to Linton Weeks of NPR who reached out to me for comment for a story he was doing on the impact of the Internet and digital technology on culture and our attention spans. His essay, “We Are Just Not Digging The Whole Anymore,” is an interesting exploration of the issue, although it is clear that Weeks, like Nick Carr (among others), is concerned about what the Net is doing to our brains. He says:

We just don’t do whole things anymore. We don’t read complete books — just excerpts. We don’t listen to whole CDs — just samplings. We don’t sit through whole baseball games — just a few innings. Don’t even write whole sentences. Or read whole stories like this one. We care more about the parts and less about the entire. We are into snippets and smidgens and clips and tweets. We are not only a fragmented society, but a fragment society. And the result: What we gain is the knowledge — or the illusion of knowledge — of many new, different and variegated aspects of life. What we lose is still being understood.

After reading the entire piece I realized that some of my comments to Weeks probably came off as a bit more pessimistic about things than I actually am. I told him, for example, that “Long-form reading, listening and viewing habits are giving way to browse-and-choose consumption,” and that “With the increase in the number of media options — or distractions, depending on how you look at them — something has to give, and that something is our attention span.”

Luckily, however, Weeks was kind enough to also give me the last word in the story in which I pointed out that it would be a serious mistake to conclude “that we’re all growing stupid, or losing our ability to think, or losing our appreciation of books, albums or other types of long-form content.” Instead, I argued: “We just don’t spend as much time with them as we used to. It’s the cost of life in an age of information abundance.” However, “I’ll take that over life in the past age of information poverty any day of the week. More people have more access to more information than at any time in human civilization. That’s a victory, even if it does come with some growing pains.”

Anyway, make sure to read the entire essay by Weeks. Also, for those interested in more, I have discussed this issue — and my fundamentally bullish outlook on matters — here at length in past essays including:



  • anonymous

    The past age was not any more or less impoverished than we are today. What people payed attention to then we simply overlook in favour of a more rationalized window of information we have in fact created.
    A man would walk down the gravel street and notice the glint in the windows, the species of bird in the tree, the fact that the trees are losing their leaves.
    Today a man will walk mostly unconsciously to the environment, but attentive to his own thoughts about artificial realities and memories.

    The variety of information available to a person has changed, but not the volume. We are creating the variety and then call ourselves rich. Do you send yourself emails and then consider yourself popular?

    Its the same effect as when you position two mirrors to reflect each other. Here’s Baudrillard in his Simulacra and Simulation (book that inspired The Matrix):

    “The fact of this implosion of contents, of the absorption of meaning, of the evanescence
    of the medium itself, of the reabsorption of every dialectic of communication in a total
    circularity of the model, of the implosion of the social in the masses, may seem
    catastrophic and desperate. But this is only the case in light of the idealism that
    dominates our whole view of information. We all live by a passionate idealism of meaning
    and of communication, by an idealism of communication through meaning, and, from this
    perspective, it is truly the catastrophe of meaning that lies in wait for us.”

    All knowledge and no wisdom makes us distracted AND stupid.

  • Hank

    This puts more burden on the content creators. When you don’t take the time to carefully write what you say, making sure it is clear, understandable (but not too redundant), and all the other good points of communication: it is no surprise that people do not take the time to read/hear/see everything you have to say. We readers/listeners/watchers can find something else that is better created

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