Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience. What’s the point of having a New York Times article about the U.S. stance toward the Syria that continues on an inside page if nobody is going to turn to the inside page? Even talking about “inside pages” is anachronistic, since more and more people get their news online, with articles that are “up-to-the-minute” but frustrating in their brevity.
By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed. Yes, there is no point in publishing a long article if no one will read it to the end. The question is, what does it take to get people to read things to the end?
The key point for teachers and principals and parents to realize is that maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.
In other words, the “short-attention” phenomenon is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, we tell ourselves that people can’t maintain attention. Second, we do nothing to nurture their ability to maintain attention. And sure enough, we “discover” that people can’t maintain attention.
I used to give my kids excruciatingly boring attention-building tasks as punishment for misbehavior.
Whether it worked? I don’t know. But I do think it was better than hitting, shaming, or yelling – kids hate being forced to copy text, partly because if their attention wanders, they screw up – and have to start the line over (if not the page).