It’s a common refrain that attention spans in general have been decreasing for the last century or so. Whether or not this is specifically true isn’t especially important.
First, let’s define what an attention span is. An attention span is an inclination, a habit, and a tendency. If a person has a short attention span, they start to feel uncomfortable after a short period of concentration on a task.
The notion of a general attention span is probably mistaken: an auto mechanic is probably capable of long periods of intense concentration to determine what’s wrong with an engine, but probably has a short attention span for studying complex insurance law.
If people as a whole are struggling to find time to focus on what matters to them, it probably results more from early conditioning than from other factors. A common thread through John Taylor Gatto’s writing on compulsory education concerns the frequent interruptions that educational institutions subject young children to when they’re switching topics.
Children attend shallow classes lasting for between 30 minutes to an hour or so each day, at which point the bell rings, and then the subject changes. Homework assignments will be shorter or longer, but any student will have to juggle many different topics from entirely different fields of knowledge in order to complete them.
It’s probably not a coincidence that TV programs tend to have a similar length to class periods. All TV producers know that their audience will probably have a shared background of compulsory schooling, so they’ll be accustomed to focused periods of approximately that time.
This differs from what’s actually required from skilled workers or thinking people, who are expected to focus on particular problems with great intensity for hours, days, months, or years at a time.
Because the training complex produces such people mostly by accident rather than design, the working world tends to be filled with people who are constantly scheduling distractions, meetings, and time-wasting presentations laden with graphics in order to create periods of artificial time pressure and deadlines to ensure something resembling work gets completed.
The root of this encouragement of fragmented attention is in the political ideal of equality.
Intellectual equality is impossible to establish. Given a mission to establish equality among students, schools adjust protocol to fudge a result that looks like limited success.
To achieve this, schools train students to be distracted and uncomfortable with the long periods of focus and daydreaming that otherwise arise in many people. This prevents individual students from pulling ahead of the herd unless they fall out of line.
If most of the students graduate with mediocre levels of knowledge and skill, that’s less important than if they are all within the same general range of mediocrity. Excellence in anything requires focused practice — when an athlete shows exceptional talent, schools may break some rules to accommodate their longer and more intensive practice hours.
Encouraging such deliberate practice, focus, and the sorting of the capable from the incapable necessarily undermines equality within the greater body of students. In a democracy which is supposed to encourage universal political participation with equal standing for all, this can only be tolerated to the extent to which it’s absolutely necessary.
Permitting this sort of specialization always causes serious ‘disparate impact’ to emerge: women and men will succeed in different areas, different racial groups pull ahead or behind, and some of the duller or more aggressive types are too useless for any responsibility whatsoever.
Training internally fragmented people creates a more similar populace which is less separated into the disparate specialties from which many of our surnames derive. With some help from scientific management, the baker can be interchangeable with the candlestick maker, and the son of the dentist can be encouraged to pursue his dreams to become a circus juggler. This emphasizes the larger political narrative that all people are interchangeable and that all people can determine their own fates if they have good school attendance and study hard enough.
Social media and schooling
The most successful and profitable social media platform derives from the academic social setting. Facebook emerged as a copy of an inferior Harvard facebook website that made it easy for students to message each other privately and in groups. It’s like a school yearbook that updates itself continuously — even after school ends.
Because compulsory schooling is the one social experience that most modern people hold in common, modern people feel uncomfortable when they’re jarred from that particular social setting. Technology permits people to contain their attention to the cycle of interruption and chatter that they’ve become conditioned to expect from their entire lives.
The interruption is a source of comfort because concentration takes a physical exertion. Preventing concentration maintains a sense of anxious comfort — and a realization that there may be nothing all that important to concentrate on, which can be disquieting in and of itself.
Like many elements of modernism from art to industry, services like Facebook and Twitter break down what the media accomplishes into its base elements: a source of gossipy distraction mixed with artfully crafted advertisements. The constant distractions are more important than the content of those distractions. Once the attention is served, advertisers can then capture some of the value of that attention by appealing to some latent desire or another.
What this tendency makes for is a people less capable of deliberate exertion, who are more aimless in their behavior, who are incapable of profound conversation, who speak in a shorthand of multi-megabyte images rather than in the bits and bytes of speech.
This common acclimation to constant focus switching has made it more challenging to do serious work or to engage in serious conversation about much of anything beyond whatever the current herd obsession happens to be.
When college professors complain that their students would rather check their smartphones than pay attention to the lectures, they’re missing that their students are adapting to the conditioning that their schooling has provided from an early age onward. If you wanted students to be capable of deep focus, you would raise them to develop that focus, rather than constantly distracted by shallow factoids and highly stimulating media.
It’s also difficult to communicate to any such audience, even of educated people, because the common body of knowledge which a speaker could once assume to be present will not be present.
On the individual level, it’s difficult to break the addiction to constant interruption once it’s in place. The benefit of going into withdrawal is an increased ability to perform any of the tasks that you do choose to focus on uninterrupted and undistracted.