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How much more can we shrink editorial attention spans?

SHOWCASE | December 23, 2008

Author Maggie Jackson asks, "Are consumers lazy? Are the media to blame? Or is Google making us stupid?" One way or another, she writes, the current ‘speed-up-the-news’ climate undermines democracy and people’s ability to think. (This article is one of several from the Winter 2008 edition of Nieman Reports, posted here in advance of the magazine’s publication.)

By Maggie Jackson

Last summer, I was a passenger in a car barreling down a Detroit highway when I noticed a driver speeding past us, a magazine propped up beside his steering wheel. Perhaps most amazingly, I was the only person in my group who was surprised by this high-speed feat of multitasking.

Today, it’s rare to give anything our full attention. Our focus is fragmented and diffused, whether we’re conversing, eating, working, minding our kids—or imbibing the news. A new hypermobile, cybercentric and split-focused world has radically changed the context of news consumption—and shifted the environment for newsgathering as well. Attention is the bedrock of deep learning, critical thinking, and creativity—all skills that we need to foster, not undercut, more than ever on both sides of the newsmaking fence. And as we become more culturally attention-deficient, I worry about whether we as a nation can nurture both an informed citizenry—and an informative press.

It’s easy to point first to rising data floods as a culprit for our distraction. More than 100 million blogs and a like number of Web sites, not to mention 1.8 million books in print, spawn so much information that, as Daniel Boorstin observes, data begin to outstrip the making of meaning. “We are captives of information,” writes the cultural historian Walter Ong, “for uninterrupted information can create an information chaos and, indeed, has done so, and quite clearly will always do so.”

Yet sense-making in today’s information-rich world is not just a matter of how much we have to contend with but, more importantly, how we approach the 24/7 newsfeed that is life today. Consider the Detroit driver; where was he consuming media, and how much focus was he allotting to the task?

Increasingly, Americans are on the go, whatever they’re doing. Just 14 percent of us move each year, yet the average number of miles that we drive annually has risen 80 percent during the past two decades. The car-as-moving-den, the popularity of power bars and other portable cuisine, the rise of injuries related to “textwalking,” all of these—and more—attest to our collective hyperactivity. And as we relentlessly hurry through our days toting hand-held foods and portable gadgets, at the same time we keep one ear or eye on multiple streams of news-bytes.

Fragmented Attention

As a term, “multitasking” doesn’t quite do justice to all the ways in which we fragment our attention. Split-focus is sometimes simply the result of living in a highly mediated world. More than half of children ages eight to 18 live in homes where a television is on most of the time, an environment linked to attention difficulties and lowered parent-child interaction. In public spaces from elevators to taxis, screens packed with flickering words and images are increasingly hard to avoid. Despite reconnaissance forays up and down airports, I usually have to succumb to an inescapable TV blare while waiting to fly. Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone deems ours a landscape of “continuous partial attention.” Tuning in and out is a way of life.

But split focus also occurs when we hopscotch from one task or person to another, as most famously exemplified by the lethal crash of a California commuter train, apparently because the rail engineer at the helm was texting. Our veneration of multitasking can be traced in part to the influential efficiency guru Frederick W. Taylor, who counseled that factory work could be speeded up if broken down into interchangeable parts. As well, we live in an era where we seem to believe that we can shape time at will. We ignore age-old rhythms of sun and season, strain to surpass our biological limitations, and now seek to break the fetters of mechanized time by trying to do two or more things at once. Multitasking is born of a post-clock era.

The result on the job is “work fragmentation,” according to Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine and a leader in the field of “interruption science.” In studies across a range of industries, she and other researchers have found that office workers change tasks on average every three minutes throughout the day. An e-mail, instant message, phone call, colleague’s question, or a new thought prompts an interruption. Once interrupted, it takes nearly 25 minutes to return to an original task. Half of the time, people are interrupting themselves.

The risks are clear. “If you’re continually interrupted and switching thoughts, it’s hard to think deeply about anything,” Mark once observed to me. “How can you engage with something?”

In our rapid-fire, split-focus era, are we able to process, filter and reflect well on the tsunamis of information barraging us daily? Are we hearing, but not listening? If this continues to be the way we work, learn and report, could we be collectively nurturing new forms of ignorance, born not from a dearth of information as in the past, but from an inability or an unwillingness to do the difficult work of forging knowledge from the data flooding our world?

I see worrisome signs that our climate of distraction undermines our ability to think deeply. Consider that nearly a third of workers are so busy or interrupted that they often feel they do not have time to reflect on the work that they do, according to the Families and Work Institute. David M. Levy, a professor at the University of Washington, has even held a high-level MacArthur Foundation-funded conference tellingly called, “No Time to Think.” [Click here for a video of the event.] And for all their tech-fluency, younger generations often have trouble evaluating and assessing information drawn from the Web, studies show. For example, a new national exam of information literacy, the Educational Testing Service’s “iSkills” assessment test, found that just half of college students could judge the objectivity of a Web site, and just over a third could correctly narrow an overly broad online search.

Multitasking and the News

News consumption fares no better, according to a small but in-depth recent study of 18- to 34-year-olds commissioned by The Associated Press. The 18 participants, who were tracked by ethnographers for days, consumed a “steady diet of bite-size pieces of news,” almost always while multitasking. Their news consumption was often “shallow and erratic,” even as they yearned to go beyond the brief and often repetitive headlines and updates that barraged them daily. Participants “appeared debilitated by information overload and unsatisfying news experiences,” researchers observed. Moreover, “when the news wore them down, participants in the study showed a tendency to passively receive versus actively seek news.”

This is a disturbing portrait: multitasking consumers uneasily “snacking” on headlines, stuck on the surface of the news, unable to turn information into knowledge.

Are consumers lazy? Are the media to blame? Or is Google making us stupid, as a recent Atlantic magazine cover story asked? It’s far too simplistic to look for a single culprit, a clear-cut driver of such changes. Rather, helped by influential tools that are seedbeds of societal change, we’ve built a culture over generations that prizes frenetic movement, fragmented work, and instant answers. Just today, my morning paper carried a front-page story about efforts “in a new age of impatience” to create a quick-boot computer. Explained one tech executive, “It’s ridiculous to ask people to wait a couple of minutes” to start up their computer. The first hand up in the classroom, the hyper-businessman who can’t sit still, much less listen—these are markers of success in American society.

Of course, the news business has always been quick, fast and fueled by multitasking. Reporters work in one of the most distracting of milieus—and yet draw on reserves of just-in-time focus to meet deadlines. Still, perhaps today we need to consider how much we can shrink editorial attention spans, with our growing emphasis on “4D” newsgathering, Twitter-style reporting, and newsfeeds from citizen bloggers whose influence far outstrips any hard-won knowledge of the difficult craft of journalism. It’s not just news consumers who are succumbing to a dangerous dependence on what’s first up on Google for making sense of their world.

Ultimately, our new world does more than speed life up and pare the news down. Most importantly, our current climate undermines the trio of skills—focus, awareness and planning/judgment—that make up the crucial human faculty of attention. When we split our focus, curb our awareness, and undercut our ability to gain perspective, we diminish our ability to think critically, carry out deep learning, or be creative. Can we afford to create an attention-deficient economy or press, or build a healthy democracy from a culture of distraction? Absolutely not.

Maggie Jackson is the author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,” published by Prometheus Books in June 2008. She writes the “Balancing Acts” column in The Boston Globe, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek and on NPR, among other national publications.

Posted by Marcy
12/29/2008, 09:37 AM

You may consider the term "switchtasking" as well, from Dave Crenshaw's book, "The Myth of Multitasking"

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