Timothy Egan on Our Eight-Second Attention Span!

Dear Commons Community,

New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan, had a piece yesterday commenting on how our attention spans have been decreasing thanks to our digital life styles.  He comments about a Canadian study last spring commissioned by Microsoft:

“A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found. [Goldfish have an attention span of nine seconds.]

Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” I tried to read the entire 54-page report, but well, you know. Still, a quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, jumped out at me. “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, he said, will be “human attention.”

Putting aside Microsoft’s self-interest in promoting quick-flash digital ads with what may be junk science, there seems little doubt that our devices have rewired our brains. We think in McNugget time. The trash flows, unfiltered, along with the relevant stuff, in an eternal stream. And the last hit of dopamine only accelerates the need for another one.”

Egan concludes that we should try to engage in activities like gardening and deep reading that require long-term attention.

As someone who has taught online courses at the college level since the 1990s, I have been concerned that the efficiency of an online discussion board, blog, or wiki, encourages both me and my students to write shorter than longer pieces if we want our colleagues to read what is posted.  Once I recognized this, I began to integrate more deep reading assignments not just in my online courses but all my courses.  I am fond of telling students to take a substantive article or book and read word for word and savor and reflect on what the author is saying.  Yes, I have gotten funny looks from them as they text or check their email on their iPhones or other mobile devices but I believe that while our digital life styles have forced us to be quicker in how we share and transact data and information, there are many (and maybe the most important) aspects of our existence that require careful reflection and contemplation.


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