Pay Attention

May 5, 2014

If you have ever been a teacher it won’t be news to you that attention spans are getting shorter - and it’s not just the kids, it’s all of us.  Entertainment and advertising have to be delivered at high speed in tiny fragments, so consumers don’t drift off to watch something that moves faster. Curators of museums need to condense their presentations into the shortest possible time span - ten thousand years of history in five minutes. Some radio stations – but not this one – make it a policy never to play more than seven or eight minutes of music without a break. There go all the great symphonies. Writers have learned to write shorter books, and even shorter articles. A British publisher has produced a series of books called "Little Reads," which give you fifty page excerpts from everything from Tess of the d’Urbevilles to War and Peace. Even radio commentators sometimes find that, as soon as they start to develop an argument, some listeners will start daydreaming.

Are you still with me? Good.

Some critics blame television for destroying our ability to concentrate. Research does show that the more TV young children watch, the more trouble they have keeping their minds on schoolwork, and the more likely they are to grow into adults with tiny attention spans..

But even if we never watch television, the demands of modern life make it hard to concentrate on anything. We are too much taken up by the neurosis called "multitasking." Unless we’re doing three things at once we feel we must be "wasting time," the cardinal sin. In fact multitasking doesn’t save time, it slows us down, because nothing ever gets done properly, and has to be done again.  With all our distractions, we find it hard to focus for more than a few minutes, sometimes a few seconds.

So the only way to get a message across is by repetition. No matter how inattentive we are, if we hear something often enough we will finally remember it. That’s how advertisers work. If they hit us with a product name and slogan thousands or tens of thousands of times, we should finally reach for that product in the supermarket. That’s how television entertainment works. If we see a single television sitcom we might miss the point. If we’ve been watching them since the 1950s we know that adults behaving like children and children behaving like adults are supposed to be funny, and we should laugh. That’s how Hollywood works, with sequels and remakes of the same movie until we get the message. The first Star Wars movie, for example, could have been mistaken for mere entertainment. By the time we get to the tenth sequel we have grasped the deeper philosophical meaning of it all: that aliens belong to the dark side, but humans are noble and good. We would never even think of building a Death Star, unless we absolutely had to. Ok, we’ve got the message, finally, repetition has worked.

You may have noticed some repetition on this station recently, for which we apologize. It’s just that we’re trying to get an important message across, and we do hope you’re paying attention.

Copyright: David Bouchier