As digital media has expanded, our attention spans seem to have shrunk. If I see a YouTube video that is more than a few minutes long, I am immediately reluctant to click it. If I open an article from the New York Times, and realize that it is several pages long, I will often close it rather than read the whole thing, or just skim the opening before getting bored and dropping it. Widely accessible media (both on production and consumption ends) has created heavy competition for human attention, and concision is an essential part of getting those eyeballs. But the question remains — by compressing everything to reach the widest audience, are we losing an essential part of the information? And perhaps more importantly, is this constant diet of quick, snappy information killing our ability to focus in-depth on topics?
I think that this availability is a good thing. I think it enables people to be exposed to concepts and subjects they otherwise might not be, and to foster interests that might otherwise be left undeveloped. YouTube has taught me about topics from net neutrality to giraffe sex, voting systems to weaponized poop. Tumblr has taught me about social issues, media manipulation techniques, sexuality, and mental health, with a good chunk of cat videos and fandom squeeing thrown in for good measure. Through my Internet experience, I learn a little bit about many topics. But critically, if one particularly catches my attention, I can easily seek out more information, which is also easily accessible and often provided at varying levels to reach people of all backgrounds.
So as to my earlier questions — I don’t think that we are losing an essential part of information. The expanded information is still out there, if we go looking for it, and more people will go looking for it because more people will know that it is there in the first place. It’s true that some people won’t go looking for it, and will still think themselves informed enough to sound off on the subject, potentially spreading misinformation. To quote Alexander Pope, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” but given that Pope was writing some three hundred years ago, this is hardly an issue that can be pinned on technology. And now instead of having to look up counterevidence in books, we can just whip out our phones and ask Siri.
The second question, on the other hand — I don’t know if we’re losing our ability to focus. I know that if I am genuinely interested in a subject I can spend hours at a time learning about it, and remain interested for weeks or even years. But I also know how easy it is to fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole — just last month I Googled the Deseret alphabet after a friend mentioned it, and an hour later I was reading about road signs in the UK, and couldn’t remember what had started me down this exploration until I went back and checked. But again, access to technology and the internet made it possible for me learn about these things, when otherwise I never would have.
These questions may be difficult to answer, but they are important, and it is crucial that we start asking them soon. As time goes by, the transition to digital over physical seems to be happening faster and more irreversibly than ever. Just a few weeks ago, HMV, the main retailer for buying physical music albums, announced that they will be closing their doors at the end of April, as the business was no longer financially sustainable.
More and more people are getting their music through digital downloads, or even streaming services. Blockbuster is so much a relic of the past as to be almost forgotten (though a few active stores do still exist), most people preferring the convenience and price point of services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and others. Even autographs from your idols have been replaced by selfies. There are a few holdouts (like me) who, for whatever reason, prefer the tangible object. But in time, the physical may die out altogether. This might be a good thing. It might be a terrible thing. We can’t know until it happens. But we should at least ask the question.
Drucker, Johanna. “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space,” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
Gervais, Bertrand. “Is There a Text on This Screen? Reading in an Age of Hypertextuality,” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
Week 5 reflection by Jill O’Craven