It has never been easier to communicate over long distances than in our world today. Just a few centuries earlier, if you had wanted to get a message to someone even 100 miles away your options were either write a letter and hope it gets there in a few weeks, or physically walk there and deliver it yourself. Now, thanks to the Internet, we can talk to people anywhere in the world, and, thanks to smartphone technology, we can do it any time.
When writing a letter there is enormous pressure to do it well and express yourself clearly, as you cannot follow up to clarify. Because of that lack of follow up, a letter requires more reflection upon what you actually want to say to the other person. This involves self-reflection as you put words to the page and that self-reflection refines the ideas, making them more intentional.
However, the majority of our communication is done through social media and email, creating an environment that is more conversational than reflective. It’s not that we don’t have the capacity for longer, more complicated thoughts; any one of us could write a long thoughtful letter and send it via Facebook Messenger or Gmail. It’s just more satisfying to have your questions answered point by point, so we send the majority of our messages as if we were having a conversation in the same room. This is all well and good, but the larger effect is less positive.
By turning the majority of our written correspondence into bite-sized morsels, we humans may have altered our own attention spans for the worse. An interesting way to look at this is through social media. On most social media platforms, being brief isn’t just good, but actively encouraged. Twitter caps your posts at 140 characters, and Snapchat is even briefer. When you know that the post will only exist for up to 10 seconds, it’s easy to not have much of a filter.
To cope with our shorter attention spans, producers of online content have had to create ways to condense information to make it more digestible to us. We no longer watch entire political speeches, so people edit them down to soundbytes that we share on Facebook. The memes from this very election cycle have become a part of the online political discourse just as much as articles. Attention is now called to election issues by the bold white Impact font we’ve seen splayed over millions of other online jokes on the Internet since we were young.
This “meme-ing” of information isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The argument could be made that it shows a more engaged citizenry and voter base. Voters care enough about the issues that they are actually creating content to inform other voters, as opposed to expressing apathy. However, the way that a lot of online media portrays issues tends toward oversimplification. For example, can a candidate’s fiscal policy really be addressed in the confines of a photo with text overlaid upon it? What about foreign policy? These examples are issues that are important to us as American citizens, but are so much more complicated than just one viewpoint or the other.
This is where the danger of our miniaturized news becomes apparent. While our attention spans get shorter and our media adapts to deal with an audience that prefers summary, the world has not moved in the same direction. The problems facing our world are more complicated than ever, and understanding these problems requires the ability to sift through information that is usually longer than the average tweet or Tumblr post.
Just look at any large piece of legislation that influences our government’s operations. The Dodd-Frank act is 848 pages of legalese, but necessary legalese that is built to help keep our country’s economy in safe waters. While this act may not affect the day-to-day lives of Americans, there are others that will, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is an astounding 906 pages. Even the Constitution, a measly (by comparison) 19-page document, is often boiled down to just an amendment or two.
The danger of our short attention spans doesn’t just rest in the political realm. The most recent iteration of Apple’s terms and conditions is 27 pages if printed out, yet we agree to it almost reflexively now by simply pressing a button on a screen, despite the fact that we could be sued, exploited, or even imprisoned for what we agree to. We have no idea what we are signing away to Apple, never mind the hundreds of other End User Licensing Agreements (EULAs) that we accept every time we install new software on our computer. EULAs are so rarely read by anyone that PC Pitstop, a security software publisher, had a temporary clause hidden in one of there EULAs that gave $1,000 to anyone who read the clause and contacted them. It took five months and over 3,000 copies of the software to be sold before anyone contacted the company.
The world is complex and filled with convoluted and adversarial narratives, ones that don’t fit into soundbytes. We need informed citizens with nuanced perspectives to prevent abuses in government and corporate spheres. Unfortunately, due to the bite-sized nature of a lot of our media, we run the risk of taking summary as the whole truth, and every summary inherently carries the biases of the one who created it.
So, now we are left with a horrible choice if we do not consciously try to change our attention spans: we either depend on summaries to inform ourselves, or we ignore the issues entirely and collapse into apathy. While there is a lesser of the two here, both are evil enough to cause alarm. We need to improve our attention spans and pursue information in a less summarized method. Without that, we leave ourselves vulnerable to manipulation, and we are in jeopardy of not recognizing dangerous situations until it is too late.