April 9, 2008

Are Our Attention Spans Shrinking?

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“Kids these days,” my elderly neighbor would say. “They got no attention span anymore.” Then he’d take a sip from his iced tea and fire a few rounds from his rifle at the tin can lying in the road. This was his favorite topic, and he’d go on and on about the rapid fire editing in some movie or other, or all the folks yakking on their cell phones as they drove by. Though he had a point, I couldn’t help noticing the way he was constantly stopping to sip his tea, or fire his gun, or ask me who I was, again. He was always getting distracted himself, and it made me wonder about all this talk of how people’s attention spans are being destroyed by the modern world.
It’s true, everything seems to be moving faster these days. Speed limits are up to 75 m.p.h. in some places, there’s magical wireless internet bopping around everywhere at fantastic speeds and advertisements float ominously across the bottom third of all our favorite television programs. Every week or so, it seems, another speed-related record is broking in swimming, or parachuting or old-fashioned running. I just recently saw a man set the Guinness world record for amputating and then reattaching all of his fingers (not including thumbs) without any outside help at all. He did it in 28 minutes, working the needle and thread with his teeth and thumbs. He may have an advantage. All that practice detaching and reattaching his fingers in training for his record-breaking attempt meant they were probably already pretty easy to remove. But still, 28 minutes. Imagine that.
But my old neighbor would distract himself, too. He needed constant stimulation just like all us “whippersnappers.” Only he would do it with tea-drinking and riflery, instead of parachuting and improvised surgery. Perhaps all our ancestors, going way back to our caveman days, have had their own unique means of distraction.
In prehistoric times, the cavepeople had their cave drawings. These drawings probably started out very minimally, just a simple doodle of a wild beast, standing there all alone on the cave wall. Probably it was a big deal when some caveperson came along and decided to do a whole series of drawings, showing the whole process of hunting the beast, killing it with sharpened sticks, making the cooking fire, how the beast was fried, and diced and eaten. “Whoa, there,” the elders said. “How can I appreciate the beauty of that elegant beast-drawing, when there’s all these other doodles of hunting and whatnot cluttering up the cave wall?”
All through history it was probably the same. Old Homer was probably outraged when his fellow Greeks decided to start dressing up in costumes to act out the epic stories that had traditionally involved just him, alone, giving voice to the characters. “Costumes!” he huffed. “You all look ridiculous!” Probably Homer was being a bit selfish. He had worked long and hard, perfecting his storytelling voice, and now all these uppity acting-types were taking the attention off of him. He chastised any audience that enjoyed this acting and costumes more than his lone storytelling-style, calling them distractible, uncultured swine and much worse.
So I’m not sure our attention spans are really getting any shorter these days. It’s certainly true that technological advances mean we are inundated with more and more information and activity. But I think perhaps it speaks to our enduring attention spans that we can still process all this stuff. To be able to follow the plot of one of these MTV-style music videos is a real accomplishment, I think. You have to pay close attention to see how the musician gets the girl, what with all the rapid fire editing and dancing going on.
And besides, I don’t think evolution works that quickly. It took hundred of thousands of years for us to learn to walk erect, or so all those illustrated evolution posters tell me. It’s only been a few thousand years since the rise of costumes and acting caused old Homer to sink into a deep depression. I think it would take longer than that for there to be any significant biological change in our attention spans.
So I’ll try to keep this in mind, when I’m an elderly neighbor myself, wanting to bemoan the attention deficit problems of the future youth of the world. And hopefully those future youngsters won’t be too quick to judge me, as I absent-mindedly detach and reattach my fingers, while complaining about their short attention spans.

Peter Rawlings is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at prawlings@cornellsun.com. Fuzzy Pickles appears alternate Wednesdays.