On Attention Span

On Attention Span

Krish Dholakiya

It's been a pretty common theme in journalism surrounding tech: the technology we use in our day-to-day is slowly cannibalizing our attention spans. Given the popularity of short bursts of information – eg. 6-second vines, 10-second Snapchats, 140-character tweets – it's easy to think that 'millennials' and younger people are doomed to being incapable of appreciating long-form content. I've personally found myself tuning out of even the most passive forms of content such as movies, that too in favor of activity such as refreshing Twitter or checking Snapchat. As a child though, prior to the introduction of the technology I use today, I'd go through thick novels within a day or two; at least from my anecdotal perspective, not to mention all the research that substantiates it, there's definitely an issue.

The discussion surrounding the issue always circles around the same things: that it's a significant problem, that it'll affect our future generations' intellectual capacities negatively, and that it's something we should be working to resolve. I find that a key consideration missing from such discussion is that of why the problem exists; it's key because, as I'm going to argue, it'll explain why that problem isn't going away until we reframe it as something other than a problem.

The problem is that it's too late to back out of short attention spans as a product consideration, at least if you're trying to make profit. It's not particularly complex: if your customers have a short attention span and you're building a content or communication driven product that doesn't work around it, you're going to lose money. "Working around it" is exactly what perpetuates the decline of our attention spans. If we're taught that 140 characters or 6 seconds are all we need in order to feel informed, entertained, or satiated, we're going to adapt in terms of our preferences in cognitive load. Put that on repeat for a few years of usage and we'll feel intellectually 'satisfied' but simultaneously be crippled in a cognitive sense. Who's to say that we'll have even made the intellectual progress to justify that satisfaction? It's entirely possible (and likely) that significantly more intellectual progress would have been made if those short bursts of info were replaced by long-form content. The problem gets more than enough airtime, though, so I'd like to move on from that onto the more important question: if it's not a problem that's going to go away any time soon, what's the future going to look like and what action items do we have at this point?

So we're doomed to the human attention span getting shorter and shorter. Solving it as a problem seems unlikely given that it goes against profit; in the highly consumerist, capitalistic society that incubates our tech, if it goes against profit it's probably not going to last (see: the wellbeing of our environment, socioeconomic equity, etc). These being our primary assumptions, is it still productive, then, to treat it as a problem? I think we'd benefit from framing it in terms of how we're going to adapt as a culture, particularly as a culture that has only survived this long thanks to circumstance and our unique ability to socialize and communicate. 

For one, communication is going to be vastly different. Emojis/stickers/etc are currently just a fun supplement to our communication -- it's really hard to picture from the vantage point of 2016, but it doesn't seem improbable that such symbolic communication will dominate in an era where words are de facto long-form (it's a scary thought, words are cool). The thought originated for me in a recent Kanye interview with Surface Magazine where he shared his thoughts on communication in the future:


Kanye's always been a sage in terms of his musical vision -- what is music but one of our most primal forms of communication? In all seriousness, he seems to be onto something. I think, with such a future in mind, we have a lot of power to frame how that communication works, if we choose to claim it. 

If this tangent hasn't already reached /r/ShowerThoughts levels, consider this: what is communication but a medium for transmitting information (which boils down to sensations that we retain)? To take that to its logical extreme, is "communication" as we know it even going to be necessary if we figure out how to transmit sensation without it? In that scenario, while the artistic beauty of communication is lost – or perhaps just transformed – we'd seem to be better off: it's simply a matter of being far more efficient at transmitting the same sensations, that too at a level agnostic to status beyond our humanity. Gaining intellect would no longer be bound by barriers of language or comprehension. No longer would a modern 'intelligentsia' correspond to concentration of power as it often does today as seen through Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the US Government, etc. Counterexamples worth acknowledging, though, include the rise of anti-intellectualism in institutions such as our government and the intellect concentrated in academia.

Again, all wild speculation, but still interesting to picture.

To bring it all together: I think we'd give ourselves immense control of how we frame the future if we stopped treating the continual decline in attention span as a problem and saw it as an inevitability. Maybe it's not going to be the utopian ideal that I spent a paragraph imagining. But it's still soon enough that we can frame what it will end up being if we start thinking about how communication will look in the distant future, and also how we can impact that.


As an aside: these are all just random thoughts that I wanted to put in writing. Additionally, this has definitely been written about before but I don't read enough to know; I'd love to be directed to such writing (@krrishd on Twitter).