The Attention Span of a Pea

If I had to make an educated guess as to just how long our collective attention span is, I would say 90-seconds at the high end. Even 90-seconds is too much for some people. In recent years, I’ve observed our attention span getting shorter and shorter, mine included. This is nothing new – no revelation, no discovery – no, this has been happening for a while and is well-documented thus far. But our dwindling attention span is a major source for concern. Sure, it’s a cute thing to make fun of, but it’s got bigger consequences than simply having the attention span of a pea. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint what caused our collective attention span to degrade as much as it has. Historically, a fairly obvious answer has been television. TV was said to rot our brains and that people would stop reading books. That hasn’t happened yet, though I’m sure TV had some impact on book sales over the years. But we’ve had TV for quite some time, and I think we’ve settled into a life that includes TV, so I hesitate to place the blame solely on television. Now, TV in combination with everything the internet has brought us, there’s our culprit. 

It’s as though the internet took all the attention-stealing attributes of TV, and give us an infinitesimal array of choices. There it was; we never had control over our content in this way before. Growing up, you watched what was on TV. You planned it out if there was something that you absolutely needed to see, events couldn’t be missed because repeats weren’t guaranteed. But with the internet’s endless swaths of all kinds of content, and TV’s expansion into hyper-specific channels and on-demand, we were spoiled. Once we were spoiled, we became so singular in our content choices that we saw no reason to veer away.

And so, our tolerance for anything other than what we came to see plummeted through the floorboards. So, we find ourselves utterly fixated on screens, seeing exactly what we want to see with minimal interruption. But then, the choices became too great, too abundant. We went from seeking out what we wanted, to having things we’d like presented to us ceaselessly; we need only scroll to continue taking in the content. Content, when everything became content, that’s when we lost it, our attention. TV was TV, you watched it, but content, that was to be consumed ravenously. Who had time to sit and watch show after show when there was so much content to be consumed? Content makes us feel like we have to consume it, otherwise we fall behind. We went from 30 to 60-minute shows (with commercials) to watching roughly 30 to 90-second clips. If we get bored, we blow past to the next one. And what’s our threshold for boredom? I would say probably 10-seconds at the most. We’ll give things a solid 10-seconds before boredom sets in, then we scroll to the next piece of content. 

What concerns me is that since nothing can hold our attention longer than two minutes, we lose the drive to do any serious learning. Learning takes time, not measured in seconds, but in hours, weeks, months, and years. People only watch documentaries if they happen to see them on Netflix or Hulu, no one is seeking them out separately. If anything, documentaries are watched just for the badge of having seen it and the ability to explain it to others. Who is reading? “Not being much of a reader” as a descriptor for a person has become so commonplace that it’s an acceptable answer. This can’t be. I’m not going to book-shame anyone, but I’m concerned with the future of art and information.

Art is changing to suit the changing attention span and convenience obsession. Now, you couldn’t get a person to listen to a 10-minute song if you tried, couldn’t get them to watch a three-hour film unless it was a Marvel movie. It’s sad, we’ve settled for the lowest common denominator because we simply can’t keep focused. What’s going to happen to movies when no one has the patience for the slow burn of a storytelling? Art dies when people don’t see its value. When our attention spans are this short, is anyone even willing to do the work of writing the long book, making the long movie, recording the long song? Will higher art forms cease to exist on a large scale? I’m concerned we’re actually becoming less cultured. We’re just becoming an amalgam of the content we consume.

Can we bring our attention span back up? I’d like to do so. Take the time to read a full article, read a full book, watch a long movie – your patience will be rewarded. If we stop taking the easiest, quickest route for everything, we’ll once again see the value in endurance and patience. If we keep consuming content with the same voracity that we’ve been, I’m very concerned that great art will be swallowed up in the whirling miasma of content. Read a goddamned book, really read it. Boost your numbers. 

Published by Christopher Goodlof

Writer, Visual Artist, Musician

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