Monday, March 05, 2007

A Beef about the (Mis)Use of the Phrase "Attention Span"

Those who talk about the deterioration of our attention spans from new technology tend to use that blanket term for many things that aren't actually attention-span-related.

For instance, I've heard people say that frequent email-checking shows that we can't focus on a single task at a time anymore and that our attention spans have become fractured and unstable.

I disagree.

For one thing, frequent checking of email shows we have an amazing attention span for keeping up with our email, and many people have so integrated it into their daily work that it really doesn't detract that much focus from other tasks, just becomes a matter of course.

Of course, there are times where an interesting email--or an urgent one--distracts from those other tasks. And there can be times when that normally-integrated task claims more attention than the other things.

That can be good or it can be bad.

I've noticed that those who complain about short attention spans of people usually have a stake in the other tasks, not in attention to the email. Those who would like to break through those other tasks using email are likely to complain that you don't check email frequently enough (or respond quickly enough) if you don't respond right away.

What really seems to be happening here is a kind of weird expectations upheaval. Because of the possibility of "instant" communication, it becomes more and more necessary for people to communicate what "ASAP" means (and what's possible), and manage the sort of anxiety that used to be present only at mailtime when one was expecting a particularly interesting or important letter. Whether you view that focus favorably or negatively depends on whether you would call focus to a single task over others great passion and attention or whether you would call it obsession.

This kind of anxiety isn't something that didn't happen in the past--there were many times people were worried about a single topic to the point where they at times ignored other things, and the question of what people prioritize certainly isn't a new one. But the technology today--and its attendant upheaval in expectations--seems to be exacerbating both the possibility of such passions, and the negative view of them by those whose tasks aren't part of them.

I find it particularly fascinating that these passions/obsessions continue in this new technology--a new technology that gets credited so often with shortening our attention spans.

Another related fascination I have is that our Western society is so used to the concept of multi-tasking by now that when a person chooses to uni-task a bit more, they find that difficult to deal with (sometimes rightly, sometimes not), even though I would argue that new media encourage that sort of passion/obsession (think of online poker players, for instance) almost as much as it encourages the culture of multi-tasking.

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