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In Praise of Shortened Attention Spans

Popular wisdom holds that American attention spans have diminished over the past few decades. But cultural critic Terry Teachout thinks that's just fine:

The latest alleged trend to set the world in a tizzy is the Crisis of Shorter Attention Spans, a dire development that has been brought about by the rise of the Internet. Or texting. Or iTunes. Or Twitter. Or whatever. I find it hard to get upset about this existential threat to Western civilization, though, perhaps because I'm part of the problem. My attention span is much shorter now than it was a decade ago—and that's just fine with me.

Part of the "problem," after all, turns out to be that Americans have gotten smarter, or at least quicker on the uptake. Take a look at any TV sitcom of the 1950s and '60s and compare it to modern-day televised fare. It's startling to see how slow-moving those old shows were. The same thing is true of live theater. The leisurely expositions of yesteryear, it turns out, aren't necessary: You can count on contemporary audiences to get the point and see where you're headed, and they don't want to wait around for you to catch up with them.

Does this mean that the discursive masterworks of the past are no longer accessible? Yes and no. A great work of art that is organically long, like "The Marriage of Figaro" or "Remembrance of Things Past," will never lack for audiences. But just as most of Shakespeare's plays can and should be cut in performance, so should today's artists always keep in mind that most of us are too busy to watch as they circle the airport, looking for a place to land.

What is the benefit of a shortened attention span? It encourages people to (as I find myself often asking in business meetings) get to the point, please:

Anyone who doubts the virtues of brevity should take a look at Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introduction" series, in which celebrated experts write with extreme concision about their areas of expertise. Each volume in the series is about 140 pages long and runs to roughly 35,000 words of text. (Most serious biographies, by contrast, run to between 150,000 and 200,000 words.)

How much can you say about a big subject in 35,000 words? Plenty, if you're Harvey C. Mansfield writing about Alexis de Tocqueville or Kenneth Minogue writing about politics. These "Very Short Introductions" are models of their kind—crisp, clear and animated by a strong point of view.

Teachout goes on at length about the series. But, honestly, I didn't read the whole article.

Link -via Joe Carter | Photo: mrJasonWeaver

Is it good that we have shorter attention spans?

Being able to grasp things quickly, even quite complex concepts and arguments, is doubtless an extremely good thing. But I don't think that this is what is generally being referred to, when people say that attention spans are shortening.

The general sense of the idea, is that ideas are being simplified and made less challenging, in order to maintain the speed of change that we see in some of today's culture - not that the concepts presented are as complex as before... but now somehow compressed.

For example, it is now the case that TV shows often tend to tell us what we are going to see, show us what we were to see, recap what we have just seen, break and then remind us of what we had just seen, before being reminded of what we are still to see - all in small bite sized chunks. Indeed, if you fast forward between the actual content, you can sometimes watch 1 hour shows in less than 15 minutes these days. Or the often mentioned 24 hour rolling news format, where tiny little bites of quite sensationalist news with very little analysis or depth of investigation is presented as journalism.

There is still the question of whether we are actually culturally beginning to lack the ability to engage with more complex and extended culture as a result of this. It is quite possible, that these approaches have more to do with the commercial pressures of content development, than with satisfying our needs in terms of presentation. That is to say, that we are being fed pap even though we're actually still quite capable of chewing on hearty meals.
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Two generations now have been told by the market that the measure of their success as human beings, attempting to live a full life, is to multi-task constantly and fill every minute with meaningful activities. Anything less is wasted time and we should feel guilty for our failure to 'produce'. But it has been proven that humans aren't very good at doing several tasks simultaneously; so we're all patting ourselves on the backs for being sub-optimal. We're maintaining the image of success minus the substance, and bitching constantly about how dissatisfying our lives, never seeing friends or family. We're just too "busy".

Here is Teachout's Wiki page:

Terry's piece above is whatcha call a 'juicy rationalization'.
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While I'm 100 percent a get-to-the-point person when it comes to informational conversation or writing, the philosophy doesn't hold when you come to literature (including Shakespeare!) -- if the writer is a good one he or she has a reason for each word or line. Cut it down and you're left with the Reader's Digest, Cliff Notes, or Classic Comics version. Yes, you get the gist of it but it's hardly the same, or intended, experience.
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The door swings both ways. Some entertainment experiences you just want to go on and on. Then there is beauty in brevity. The artwork Sweet Halloween Dreams tells what it needs to say in one scene, and I have a hard time believing they can stretch it to feature film length and keep the quality. On the other hand, I didn't think they could do that with Alive in Joberg, either, but I was wrong. Then there's the Clydesdale ad for the Super Bowl, which is a master work of cinematography. Every shot lasts about one second, and every shot has the exact thing needed to advance the plot. The time restriction enforced the quality. It could have been a great five-minute story, too, but stretching it to two hours would be totally unnecessary.
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I suppose a short attention span is fine if the only tasks you ever deal with are simple and quickly completed. Not all complex and time-consuming intellectual tasks can be done by computer.
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