I ask you to wait, knowing that a one-second delay in page load time results in 11% fewer webpage views. No one is willing to wait to see anything. If it is not immediately available on demand, we go elsewhere. This is true, but is it the same as having a short attention span? And, if so, is a short attention span a bad thing?
To answer that question, we need to first define attention span. Wikipedia points out that the length of an attention span depends on the definition being used: focused attention or sustained attention. Focused attention is a very brief response to some unexpected stimulus. This might be what we are using when surfing for new pages. Sustained attention is what you give to an interesting book or movie over an extended period.
The squishiness of this distinction should give one pause before inferring that Internet users suffer mental decline. Attention span seems to be one of those concepts that everyone understands intuitively, but when looked at in more detail, is sufficiently poorly defined as to be almost useless. In 2011, Virginia Hefferman writing in the New York Times referred to The Attention-span Myth, and she gave several examples of why we should be wary of assuming an overall decline in attention span, whatever it is.
Perhaps one unusual product of the mythical decreasing attention span is the flash mob. Time magazine ran an interview with the person who supposedly invented flash mobs. After watching the phenomenon of flash mobs grow, he came to the reasonable conclusion that he did not invent anything at all. Although he does not say so in the interview, it seems that the original flash mob mentality was probably fed by the same desire for immediate response as the search for quick webpages. Then flash mobs morphed into something else.
Certainly the planning that went into that video did not represent a decrease in brain power or lack of attention span, but it does provide some immediate entertainment for the audience.
But what about the evidence that rapid surfing can cause measurable changes in the interconnections of a human brain? Is shortening attention span related to ADD (attention deficit disorder)? Nicholas Carr has shown convincing evidence that surfing causes measureable changes in how a brain operates. But is that good or bad (answer: yes)? We also have good evidence that the invention of writing changed how literate people organize thoughts and even think. But there have been many further technical advances between clay tablets and iPad tablets. Each of these advances has had an effect on how people think or organize data. I have often referred to the tremendous change in attitude brought about by the proliferation of railroads; these, along with their accompanying telegraphs, were the first Internet, and they changed society just as much as our Internet changes us.
We often overlook the similar importance of typewriters. The spread of affordable typewriters also had an often overlooked change on society. One example of this we also owe to Carr. He points out that the philosopher, Nietzsche, slowly went blind and found it difficult to write his books longhand, so he bought a typewriter and taught himself how to touch type. This enabled him to continue his work, but had a subtle effect. The way he constructed sentences and arguments after he became an accomplished typist differed from his earlier works. This seems to be a real effect and not just the result of maturing. Using the tool of typing affected how he constructed his thoughts.
Two other examples of technology that have changed how we think are the movies and television. Look at any movie made prior to about 1945. Note the length of the shots and how transitions are made. Then look at any current film. They have many more rapid cuts, often with the sound from one scene carrying over to the next in a way that would have been unintelligible to our great-grandparents. Storylines often have more intertwined sub-plots than were included in early movies. Perspective changes are frequent (see East of Eden for some early examples of the transition).
Television carries this trend even further simply because, with the addition of cable, many channels are competing for your attention. By hooking you into a rapidly changing story, they hope to keep you from flipping. This trend peaks with MTV-type videos.
Then you add in at least a generation that has grown up playing rapid response video games, and I doubt that Nietzsche, even with his typewriter skills, would have the proper inter-neural connections to follow the actions of an avid gamer. Hey, I’m a senior and I cannot do it!
So we have scientific proof that activities requiring rapid response affects the way our brains are organized, and we can trace a continual decrease in likely average attention spans from the attention of sailing boat captains to freeway drivers, from cuneiform writing to cloud storage, from Renaissance painting to MTV. Still, I do not believe we have a very good definition of attention span and what it means. All I know is that if I spend too much time on something, I lose inter…