Saturday, September 4, 2010

In Praise of "Short" Attention Spans

Yet another piece about Nicholas Carr's The Shallows appears today, although this one is markedly less pretentious than most:

I've long suspected our brains were undergoing rapid evolutionary changes because of the Internet. I bought "The Shallows" and was quite surprised to find it wasn't the predictable diatribe against technology I expected, but a fairly nuanced, logical and deeply insightful exploration of brain plasticity, the cultural assumptions and practices embedded in reading a book, and how various means of acquiring information have shaped human intelligence. (P-G, Tony Norman)

The column doubles as an innovative, narrative-based way to write ye olde "List of Books I Recommend" piece, so good job there, Tony.

But here's the bit that doesn't sit well with most of the hand-wringing out there: fine, the brain is plastic. That means it easily changes how it works depending on what it tends to work with, and the omnipresence of an infinite, easy-manipulated Internet seems to be shortening (and otherwise playing with) our attention spans. Yet "plasticity" is only another way of saying "highly adaptive" -- which means that if our habits of attention are changing, then that must be a good thing, either A) in itself or B) in that the sacrifice must be somehow worthwhile given something else our biology has determined is more valuable.

"Evolutionary changes", right? Maybe we're just losing our flippers and tails.

My dad crystallized many of these thoughts for me after the last Shallows-inspired piece (or the last one?) -- even though he was actually referencing other stuff which appeared on the editorial page.

"90% of what you read anymore, you know exactly what they're going to say after the first paragraph!" Dad complained. "No matter what they're talking about, this guy's gonna say Obama's awful, everything's his fault, we should lower taxes, screw the poor -- and then this lady's gonna blame everything everything on the Republicans, and say the exact opposite."

"Not that I disagree with her," he was quick to add, "but it's the same thing over and over!" He has similar complaints, more frequently, concerning television news shows.

If something is "the same thing over and over" -- so highly identifiable and predictable -- why would our brains tolerate a long, forced march, which so rarely surprises us pleasantly at its end, thereby confirming our accurate initial determination? It's not like we have only so many words to read anymore, and we'd better eat what's on our plate.

We're all becoming Simon Cowells of content, and for good reason. I'm grateful to my creator that I'm developing a well-attuned Boring, Unoriginal or Previously Digested Alarm, as well as an itchy mouse-finger.

This goes way beyond partisan screeds. If you find something broken in a lead paragraph and don't see it addressed soon, or if you don't buy the first couple premises of any author's argument yet your objections are not engaged, what use is there to finishing these inapplicable pieces, again and again and again? Does that not take precious time away from the day's needle-in-a-haystack search for genuinely original, relevant, informative content?

Some commentators insist that the Internet makes us too likely to engage solely with perspectives with which we agree, while rejecting content with which we disagree -- that we're all a bunch of choir girls and boys in search of preachers within our own denominations. I don't know about that. I've been known to listen to or watch Glenn Beck with rabid fascination, and I can listen to Rush Limbaugh soliloquize for hours. Contrariwise, those liberal talking heads I feel guilty about not supporting bore the sense of duty right out of me. Maybe it's because I've read or at least thought already what they're saying, whereas the very best of the best conservatives come up with wholly original, captivating content. (When's the last time a liberal came up with something as powerfully clever as the Ground Zero Mosque?)


At any rate, before this blog post gets too long and repetitive, I want to get to Tony's original subject: books. Non-fiction books in particular. Long, repetitive non-fiction books. He seems to feel bad that his brain won't let him finish them anymore.

Let me take a quick look around my house:

The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman: Globalization, baby! Information technology is leveling the playing field. America can hardly be expected to maintain its huge lead, especially not over India and China. People on canoes in Africa have cell phones now, wow!

The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel P. Huntington: Yeah, and given globalization, religious and cultural or tribal differences, those barriers to understanding and fellowship, are going to be what cause problems rather than political and national schisms. Western, Latin American, African, Islamic teams et cetera. Pretty prescient for 1996.

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell: The brain is excellent at processing complex and limited information quickly and efficiently. It's true what they say about first impressions. You are usually correct to trust them.

Right. All very strong thesis and valuable information. I feel smarter for knowing all of it.

Now tell me, did the authors really need over 300 pages apiece to get their points across? These non-fiction books all had something very simple to say, and then were padded out with copious examples, anecdotes, studies, straw-counterarguments, and, more than anything else, good old-fashioned repetition and fluff.

Maybe it's the publishing industry that insists that nothing can be communicated in less than 300 pages? Maybe it's impossible to charge $34.95 for a 25 page pamphlet that can be just as mind-blowing as a 300 page tome? Sure, arguments require evidence, but do most people need forty or fifty exhibits, arranged in the form of a memoir of how exactly our author came since college to arrive at this opinion?

Most of us, well, we Blink: "What are you telling us? Oh hey, that makes sense, only I wonder ... well gosh, you seem to have done your homework. Yeah, I pretty much believe this now.


Back to Tony. He proves my point at the end.

I've read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages this summer, but I've only completed one book cover to cover, an excellent thriller by John Verdon called "Think of a Number." I read it in two or three sittings because I desperately needed closure. At the rate I'm going, I think my brain is officially broken. (ibid)

See that? A thriller, a mystery. Intellectual and enjoyable, the very point is taking the journey.

There's nothing wrong with your brain. It's better than ever.


  1. I hate to agree with anything Nick Cage says because National Treasure was seven kids of stupid, but I think my brain has issues with modernity and attention span.

  2. Also, "Clash of Civilizations" was a much shorter article before it was a book.