Short Attention Spans

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On the back of Michael Stelzner's recent blog post - "Why the World is Tuning Out (and why you need to change)" - I revisited an article by Nicholas Carr that was sent to me some time ago by my Mum (and linked to in the comments of Stelzner's post) called "Is Google Making us Stupid?". Both deal with the concept of information overload. We send and receive so many messages every day in such a variety of ways, that as a species we are evolving in our habits. We pick and choose the messages we receive, and the channels we wish to receive them on.

I have a short attention span. Some days, it's extremely short. It's the main reason I don't watch television - because I just can't sit still and concentrate on one thing for the length of a normal television show. When I work, I work on a number of things all at the same time - I'll have a dozen or more browser tabs open, a clutch of files that I'm editing and at least one or two emails that I'm drafting responses to. This way, I can flick between all of them, doing a bit here and a bit there. It may seem totally disorganised and to watch me I'm sure it's a wonder how I actually manage to achieve anything in the end. But I do, and often more than even I expect. Incidentally, I read in the same way - while singing along to the radio, having a conversation, eating, sometimes all at the same time. I strongly believe that this is a case of me adapting to the tools I have at my disposal, and choosing to filter not only my inputs (how I receive messages), but also my outputs (how I send out messages).

The Carr article recounts a story about Friedrich Nietzsche and how his writing style changed after his acquisition of a typewriter. It made me think about how I interact with my tools too, and how my writing might change if I was to try different methods. Indeed, history would suggest that it would. When I was in pursuit of the NaNoWriMo prize last November, I was using a writing tool (under Windows) called yWriter. This programme allows the writer to set out scenes and characters and chapters and drag and drop them one into the other at will. This was great for developing the story (although it also provided many procrastination tools!) as I could see the whole thing laid out in front me. I think the fact that Stopping All Stations has so many chapters and characters can probably be attributed to yWriter's format. When I was editing, however, I switched into Open Office and worked on the text in a WYSIWYG instead. It allowed me to stop thinking about the structure of the book, and concentrate instead on the text, and the story. Then, when I was trying my hand at some shorter fiction, I switched to using an editor called Q10 (unfortunately only available under Windows). This one was great for just getting words down on (metaphorical) paper, and probably would have been a better choice for NaNoWriMo (if someone discovers a Linux version, let me know!), although I found something inherently strange about it. The black background, the fullscreen concept, the courier font, the hollow echoing of the typewriter sound effects as I typed - it depressed me. And so I wrote depressing stuff. Weird? Yeah, I think so too. I don't handwrite anything much more than a shopping list these days, but I'm actually considering trying some longhand, just to see how it'll turn out.

It is entirely possible that new technology is shortening attention spans; and that scattering information to the four winds is creating a world full of people who rely on the internet and other technologies just in order to get through the day. Implicit in that, though, is the idea that we aren't free-thinking human beings. We can choose to rely on technology or not, we can choose to receive our messages in little, easily digested clumps or in long essays, and we can choose to send our messages out in a similar fashion. I guess I made my choice - and my naturally short attention span has suddenly become a rather useful tool.


Aurelius said...

"The black background, the fullscreen concept, the courier font, the hollow echoing of the typewriter sound effects as I typed - it depressed me. And so I wrote depressing stuff."

When Paul Kelly writes a song (according to a quote I once read in a Neil Finn interview) he tries to consciously write music in the opposite mood to the lyrics. "To Her Door" being a good example.

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