Thursday, March 19, 2015
In Defense of Short Attention Spans
When I hear complaints from people my age and older about the lack of attention spans in today’s youth, I wonder whether this is just the inevitable disconnection that happens with generations, or whether indeed today’s youth have short attention spans.
I then wonder whether this is really a problem. The idea of an attention span presumes that there is something to be traversed. Here in the Quad Cities, the Centennial Bridge spans the Mississippi River, and it would be a bad thing if the bridge began in Illinois but failed to make it to Iowa. In the case of consciousness, however, the thing being spanned is more difficult to determine. If it is a vital task, then poor attention spans are a bad thing, but if we are talking about intellectual topics, then I am not sure a lack of a span is a bad thing.
The world seems to be getting increasingly pluralistic. There are multiplicities of truth systems, many religious beliefs, and sundry tastes in art and politics. It seems natural to me that consciousness would tend nowadays to jot among these various things, sampling more than savoring.
It does seem to me that savoring is the goal of the old school consciousness. The epitome of intellectual savory is the novel, or the treatise, or the tome. These are all names for long written works that are focused more or less on one topic. But there are also the poem, short story, and aphorism. These are short works whose topics have small spans.
I propose that literature return to the short story, and philosophy return to the aphorism. Attention spans are indeed shorter nowadays, but attention remains constant. In fact, consciousness is always on some object, and the only real deficit of attention we have is when we are not conscious. Otherwise, consciousness is sampling rather than savoring. And what is wrong with sampling many things, especially when the world we live in is so pluralistic? We might be better off adapting ourselves to knowing relatively little about a lot of things than focusing our attention on one thing.
I could continue this post with an extensive review of the literature on attention, but that would be too boring. You have other things to think about, including the other posts on this blog.