Monday, May 11, 2009

Your Attention, Please

Hitler is the ultimate conversation killer. If you're ever trying to have a legitimate debate and a comparison is made to Nazis or any derivation thereof, then there's no point in further discussion. You're no longer having an intellectual debate about whatever the topic was; you're now having an emotional debate about how terrible Hitler was. In most formal debating circles, the person who invokes Hitler or the Nazis automatically loses. In informal conversation, you've lost the argument as soon as you brought up Hitler or the Nazis, whether you realize it or not.

Likewise, I've recently come up with my own self-imposed, self-enforced rule of conversation. If someone invokes the "common knowledge" that kids have short attention spans these days, the conversation is over and said someone just lost.

The idea that attention spans are getting shorter with each passing generation has been around for a long time. It's so commonly repeated that most people accept it as fact. In truth, there's not enough research to draw that conclusion. Most evidence is anecdotal, and the current research points only to the fact that more research needs to be performed.

Here's the thing... I'm not trying to suggest that it isn't true. It probably is true. I've collected plenty of my own anecdotal evidence to make a convincing argument. What I take issue with is how the introduction of this idea sabotages and redirects a conversation. It's an easy, lazy way to make a point, and it blocks people from digging any deeper into an idea.
Take this example from the April 6, 2009 edition of KCRW's The Business. Host Kim Masters brought in former ER producer Neal Baer to discuss the declining popularity of the hourlong drama.

NEAL BAER: Young people -- are they not interested in one hour dramas? Are they interested in shows that last three minutes? I certainly hope not. You can't tell compelling stories in three minute bites, I don't believe. They're different. But they're certainly not gonna be complex. They're not going to plumb the depths of human emotion.

KIM MASTERS: We have a generation with the very tiny little attention spans.

BAER: And it's very superficial. So I certainly hope that there will be a plethora of new dramas on all the networks so that it lights, you know, the fire.

The entire purpose of this particular edition of "The Business" was to explore why and how hourlong dramas are losing their standing. But instead of allowing the topic to be examined, the host cuts in with the simpleminded notion of, "Well, you know the kids these days, with their short attention spans, and their Twitters, and why the hell won't they stay off my lawn?!!" She's subverting her own work. If the question is so simple to answer, then why are you dedicating an entire half hour of radio broadcast time to it? A person with knowledge and experience was brought in specifically to elaborate. He was doing so effectively, describing the problems inherent in short-form storytelling, and explaining what would be lacking if the hourlong drama were to disappear from the television landscape. And as he's right in the middle of doing what he was brought in to do, he is interrupted by the very person who brought him in, so that an inane, reductive "point" could be made.

The truth, of course, is that the topic is much more complex than "short attention spans" can account for, and it's worthy of further exploration. So why did the host of the show prevent the guest from exploring it?

You'll notice that adults are the only ones who make the "short attention span" argument. Whether they realize it or not, what they're doing is asserting their superiority over the newer generations. "When I was your age, I was able to sit still for 15 entire minutes. I didn't need computer generated special effects, and my friends texting me every minute, and why the hell won't you stay off my lawn?!!"

When you ask a reasonable, mature adult what it's all about, this whole "life" thing, we all tend to agree: we believe that children are our future. We all want to make things better. We work hard so that we can earn money, feed our families, save for our children's educations, and give them a better life than we had. So why is it that we reflexively seek ways to build ourselves up by putting children down? Why do we like to trumpet our attention span superiority?

What most people fail to consider is that the younger generations may be better off with shorter attention spans. The supposition in the "short attention span" argument is that shorter attention spans are a bad thing. Meanwhile, as history grows longer, and humans develop better, more thorough ways of recording, archiving, and searching through it, we find ourselves condensing a lot more information into shorter periods of education. And we expect our children to keep up with that. And guess what? They're keeping up! They're adapting. They're being presented with an ever-increasing amount of data, and they're processing it all masterfully.

Consider this article by Dr. Kathie Nunley. In it, she notes how the human brain seems programmed to gravitate toward novelty. "Not only does a novel experience seem to capture our attention," she says, but "it appears to be an essential need of the mind."

The pace of novel experiences has changed. At one time a young child could master or learn his surroundings and they remained relatively unchanged. A toy or two, a dozen people, a home sparsely decorated. Even the world outside the home had relatively limited novelty to offer after the first few years of one's life. ...

Not so today. Today's mind, young or old is continuously bombarded with new and novel experiences. Rather than novel opportunities every few days or weeks, we now have novelty presented in micro-seconds. ...

Even outside of television and video, the presentation of commercial product is at an unprecedented pace. Color catalogues, the internet, toy circulars, new car advertisements, mega-super stores are providing a bombardment of information, wants and wishes.

For better or for worse, this is the world we've been born into for many generations now, and our brains are keeping up with it spectacularly well. To exist and thrive in this world, we must acknowledge the possibility that shorter attention spans are a necessity. It's not the end of the world. In fact, it's what's going to perpetuate the world.

Instead of lamenting how short a child's attention span is, maybe you should concern yourself with how rapidly you become boring.

Besides, you know who thought children had short attention spans? Hitler.