I’ve been reflecting on Richard Watson’s blog postings on the effects of shorter attention spans. There is some good analysis and insights in the current issue of Richard’s What’s Next trend report. I recommend it to others. But this posting is about attention.
In the Thinking about Thinking piece in Issue 20, Richard explores why partial attention is happening and what the consequences are. I feel that I can add to Richard’s views and offer some alternative perspectives.
Richard quite rightly points to the Internet as encouraging us to consume in “short, snack-sized bites”. We flip around from one web page to another, one video to another. Most rarely go past the first page of web search results. But our attention is fragmented in other ways too: we are consuming more media and using new ways to connect with others. Not all at the same time but with partial attention. The web plays a big role in shifting attention, but the issues go further than just the Internet. Wasn’t there some guy in Japan who had his thumbs altered in surgery so he was better able to text?
Richard suggests that shortening attention spans results in less ability to concentrate, contemplate or reflect. I don’t think so. What are we giving up in spending more time on other media? We are spending more of our lives online…but less time watching TV or reading a newspaper. The Social Web is about participation – we have the opportunity to express our views, share our knowledge or artistic creativity and connect with others. We have more opportunity to learn. I’ve spent much more time online this year doing things like blogging, commenting on others blogs or posting stuff on social networking sites and web discussion forums. Over the last few weeks I seem to be spending more time viewing videos online of people presenting or in conversation with others. My Google Reader feeds provide a very useful way to tailor the information flood to my needs. Participating in Twitter, Friendfeed and other social networks has opened up new sources of information and networking opportunities.
Much of my interface with online communities is episodic although I must admit, it can be distracting. I too do not want to miss something. My holiday time does seem to blur into keeping connected with what is going on. All true. See Richard’s other posting on attention for background. But these give rise to social consequences, not the ability to think. Technology is changing our territorial and psychological boundaries – but for me that is broadening my mind, just in the way that travel broadens your mind.
The benefits of paying attention to stuff online are for me quite substantive and compelling. I have access to more knowledgeable and strategic thinkers located around the world than I would have once ever imagined. That interaction has prompted me to do a lot of thinking. I’ve had more to contemplate and reflect on and contemplate and reflect I have!
The discipline of writing a blog posting or commenting in a concise and (hopefully) constructive way requires some careful thinking. Sure, as Richard observes, firing off something too quickly is a problem. But you learn from your mistakes.
I’ll close by looking at the practice of executive summaries – an established method for briefing senior executives for I don’t know how many years. Many executives do not read papers that go past three pages. Does that mean senior executives are getting stupid? Now pick yourself off the floor and think again. In my view, the best executives are those that see the big picture, the emerging patterns and opportunities that those dwelling on more specific things do not.
What’s more, I’ll go as far as saying that specialisation and mechanical repetition that characterised the industrial age resulted in people being far less able to contemplate and reflect on the rich diversity of life and think for themselves. Instead we had broadcasters and publishers doing the thinking for them. That’s all changing.