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On Attention Spans

January 14, 2013

Something that I’ve been wondering about recently is how much the way we receive information changes the way we react to it.

For the past couple of years we’ve seen more and more services become bitesize, 24/7 or both.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the way that we consume news.  The explosion of 24 hour news channels, the way online media can support far more information and updates than any newspaper or time-dependant TV slot ever has.  The rush to be there first, to report quickest.

Fast is good.  It’s necessary in a world where it’s received wisdom that standing still is the same as going backwards.  But what has it done to our ability to process information, or explore root causes?

It strikes me that the way that we react to things is changing.  There’s constant exposition of the ‘what’, rather than truly understanding the ‘why’ or the ‘how’.  Twitter is a great tool, but 140 characters doesn’t leave a lot of space to dig into the reasons behind things.

And how does this affect our ability to process stories, think critically?

Claire Tomalin, as part of her promotion for her biography of Dickens, commented:

“Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have
to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.”

From the BBC last year

Are we losing the ability to concentrate on anything that requires a bit more effort or time?

Which is why I’m really interested by the #Edenwalk.

In a world of bite-size communication and instant gratification, I love that someone has the courage to do something that will require this level of dedication.

I’m intrigued by the idea that this isn’t just about following the footsteps of our earliest ancestors, but about how we process stories – adding depth because the pace is slower.

“You can make a pretty good evolutionary argument that this was how we were
designed to absorb information at about 5km an hour (3mph),” he says. That is an
average walking speed.

(Paul Salopek, Going For A Seven-Year Walk)

Maybe sometimes to fully understand things, we just have to take them slower?

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