For a long time, I've been meaning to write about the shortening of attention spans, but I never really got around to it because I kept getting distra... oooh, look, something shiny. But in between being distracted and trying to get stuff done, there have been a few moments to think about why this is. Why can't we think clearly anymore? How much more information do we have to be bombarded with to break down, break away and re-learn that elusive, distant thing called clarity?
Mark Little wrote about it recently on his blog (I've put that in there just so he doesn't think I nicked the idea from him. As I said I would have written about it earlier apart from all the distra... must check my Facebook... what am I doing tonight... isn't it weird how spam address names sound like people in Bolivian plays... better book those flights... which website was cheaper again... oh forgot to finish that Gchat conversation... I'm thirsty...) He referenced an article about 'filter failure' which refers to the amount of information we ingest and how difficult it is to prioritise or purposefully suppress information that isn't important to us.
Like most changes in the modern psyche, several things happen at once to cause this. The shortening of attention spans is to do with information assault, the tools that allow that information overflow (primarily, the internet, but also an increase of media channels including digital TV), and on a practical level, how our minds learn to cope with almost constant interruption. But the fact is, our minds haven't learned to cope properly yet. That flickering in your attention, that buzz, that forgetfulness even though you're right in the middle of something, is the circuits in your poor brain pinballing around trying to figure out what the hell you're up to as you leapfrog from topic to topic, task to task.
As our minds become more sophisticated in terms of how we cope with this assault, we also lose something else. In the same way that stuffing a case full of clothes may make them eventually fit in, it also changes the shape of the suitcase, even bursting it at the zips. Our ability to contain unbelievable amounts of information, from keeping track of complex storylines and multi-threading in TV dramas, to consuming incredible amounts of celebrity gossip, from learning everything instantly via Google, to listening to huge volumes of music in a month that previously would have taken a lifetime to acquire, is bursting our brains. The information is fitting to some degree, but damage is being done in terms of retention and utilising that information.
We may be slightly smarter now in a way, but for the most part, it's a superficial level of concentration, constantly primed for the multiple interruptions we encounter almost every minute.
Personally, I worry. I have lost the ability to stare into space for even a minute without grabbing my iPhone and playing Alpine Crawler World (this is a game where you drive a 4x4 over hills. If everyone has got past level six, please tell me, I'm dying here.) I watch TV with my laptop on my knees and my iPhone beside me. It's called 'media surfing' apparently. There has been a lot written about the iPhone turning people into iZombies, because of the extent it grabs your attention in any vaguely free moment which used to be reserved for thinking about things, or thinking about nothing, or just relaxing for a second. No. No more. When I first got my iPhone, I became so obsessed by it and so constantly consumed by it that my flatmates and friends started calling me iUna, saying that the attention I afforded it had actually changed my personality. Even if I was physically in the room, my mind was wandering, distracted by checking emails, or Twitter, or playing a game, or grabbing some info online.
Just because our thought processes are getting more complex, doesn't mean they're getting any more efficient. Our brains are the equivalent of a lazy governmental office, with dozens of civil servants faffing around trying to handle the same request in multiple ways, and in the end they just screw it up anyway or forget about it, only to return to it a while later when they realise what they were thinking about in the first place. This tech-Alzheimer's is playing such havoc with me that I'm almost tempted to check out of various time- and concentration-sapping endeavours; deleting my Facebook, laying off Twitter, scrapping the games on my iPhone, not NEEDING to get the answer to every single question, or the video of every latest volcano explosion/ Whitney Houston gaffe, or the newest bootleg remix mp3, or the fact on everything instantly right now. Phew.
One would have thought digesting so much information would make us more productive, as we sourced answers and content from so many different places instead of the slow lumbering snail trail of traditional media. Guess what? I'm more confused than ever.