March 17, 2011

Rational short attention spans

(Attention conservation summary: attention spans have not become shorter, there are simply so much more good information out there that it is rational to jump around more to find something truly engrossing)

Free media as in free beerDo we really have shorter attention spans now than in the past? It certainly *feels* that way, but a few years in Oxford and too much cognitive bias literature has made me distrust my own judgement.

If we really had short attention spans, we should expect the average book to become far shorter (and book sales go down in preference for comics). This does not seem to happen: book sales are up and books doesn't seem to get shorter. In fact, the spread of multi-volume fantasy novels with casts of hundreds of characters seem to be a pretty convincing argument that young people are able to pay significant attention.

Book length seems to be more driven by economic factors and that word processors allow authors to write more. Looking around the net I see that some writers claim there is a new trend towards shorter novels again because of economic reasons of bookstore shelf space, but ebooks could certainly change that. Different genres also have different preferred word counts

Similarly, films have for technical reasons become able to be epic in length, and I assume there are economic reasons too (how much would you pay for a ticket to a 50 minute film?). Yet the clipping has become far faster - seeing young people encounter Kubrick's 2001 for the first time is instructive. They better not try Tarkovsky's Solaris.

So my theory is that we can still pay attention for a long time - but we want a lot more to happen per unit of time too. We want faster rewards, more action.

PolemicsWhy? Perhaps because there is so much stuff out there, so the alternative cost of spending a lot of time on something that does not turn out to be worthwhile is higher. In the time you have spent reading this post (and I writing it) we could have read several RSS entries and short blog posts, watched a YouTube clip, browsed Wikipedia or run a calculation in our favourite math program.

[ Why did we in the past not cram more action into our films and novels? To some degree we did: 19th century novels often had a large number of plot twists since they were published in instalments. But there was far less competition: books were expensive and had to be fetched from the library, there were few films, there were fewer competing media. There were also limits to the complexity the readers and viewers could take in: today we have media experience that allow us to simply chunk much of standard stories (we are thinking in tropes!) Maybe the old media were more free and nuanced while modern media relies on triggering various known symbols and references (a digital mode), but that nuance also required a slower pace for the "analogue" information to be transmitted. See for example Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television by Jason Mittell and Watching TV Makes You Smarter by Steven Johnson. ]

[ One reason there is so much worry about shortening attention spans might be that we live in a society where high status activities increasingly involve focusing on highly abstract material, and being distractable is seen as a problem. Instead of looking at the distraction, motivation and task switching itself, a reified attention span is invoked (see The Attention-Span Myth by Virginia Heffernan)]

If this model is true, then we should expect the trend to continue. In the future, we are going to have far more good books, films, comics, papers and other documents instantly available.

It is rational to demand quick and reliable evidence that whatever we have in front of us is relevant or interesting. Spending a lot of time finding out if it actually is by just consuming it would mean we would often waste precious time and attention on things that are not as good.

There is of course a trade-off here, since some important things do not look inviting (since they were made before the current attention economy) and some unimportant things masquerade as important. Smart agents balance the exploration with exploitation.

This is why reliable filtering and reviewing actually are key transhuman technologies. And why training to recognize the real cost and value of what you are doing is such a key transhuman virtue.

Posted by Anders3 at March 17, 2011 07:44 PM