Is your attention span too short to get you through this blog post?


Short Attention Span Bar & Grill...Happy moment, 5ish!
Short Attention Span Bar & Grill…Happy moment, 5ish!

There’s a point at which political communication speeds past the last stop where democratic deliberation, the genuine consent of the governed, is possible.  An instant poll, of that sort that pops up on your screen while you’re attempting to read debate coverage, encourages snap and solitary judgment, the very opposite of what’s necessary for the exercise of good citizenship.--Jill Lepore, “The Party Crashers,” The New Yorker, 2/22/2016.

If you’re an American, you’re probably tired of the incessant nattering about presidential politics that is all one can find on  CNN, MSNBC, and Fox during this season of party primaries.  And we’re still months away from the actual election.  At the same time, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off the slow-motion train-wreck that U.S. politics has become.

A quick glance at serious journalism reveals a long list of explanations for why this is happening: the corrupting influence of moneyed political-action groups; the fragmentation of media, which invites people to pay attention only to those sources of information that pander to their prejudices; the hyperbolic End Times rhetoric of the 21st century Republican party; the anxiety or simmering rage of working- and middle-class Americans who feel, with considerable justification, that they are being abandoned by our social system, and so on.  All of these theories have a degree of merit.

Our current political reality is, as the mandarins of social theory like to say, “overdetermined.”  Still, I often cycle back to the allegation that promoting much of this chaos is our declining attention span, which produces an unwillingness  to ponder and assess the claims that politicians of both parties make during their campaigns, to think slowly and deeply about the character of the men and women who are asking for our votes.  No one seems to care that the tax-cutting schemes pitched by candidates on the right are, when appraised carefully by economists, judged certain to increase the national debt far beyond its present lamentable state.  However much one may admire Bernie Sanders, how plausible is it that the policies he advocates can provide a free college education for every American who desires one?

Aspects of the claim that new media are changing human cognition were explored prominently in Neil Postman’s prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) and in a somewhat different way by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011).  And it’s not just the Internet: cinema studies have shown that since 1930 the average shot length has declined from 12 seconds to 2.5.   This process attracted public attention (for only a nanosecond or so) with the publication of a study purporting to show that goldfish have a longer attention span than humans.


I was obliged to think about this recently when the organization I direct undertook a revision of its mission statement.  The statement I inherited ran to nearly 120 words and consisted of long, boggy phrases that were mostly lists of things we did and for whom.  To be fair, the organization has an unusually complicated mission that reflects a complex history.  We run academic seminars, manage anthropology’s biggest book award, steward a spectacular collection of Native American art from the Southwest, offer resident fellowships for scholars and Indigenous artists, etc., etc.  It’s thus not easy to come up with a concise statement of the mission that would be suitable for the legendary “elevator pitch.”  The elevator pitch, I gather, emerged from Silicon Valley and refers to the thirty seconds or so in which entrepreneurial supplicants must convince a venture capitalist to provide them with millions of dollars to turn an idea into a viable business.

With the help of several board members, I drafted a punchier version of the mission statement that was about half the length of the original.  It was duly approved by the full board.  Yet even before the digital ink was dry, a visiting team of investment consultants had scornfully dismissed the new, shorter statement as unacceptably long.  A study of mission statements insists, based on a review of 50 prominent non-profits, that their average length is 15.3 words (“excluding brand references”) and that the top 20 examples average only 9.5 words.  The winner is TED, whose mission statement consists of two words, “Spreading Ideas.”  OK, but what kind of ideas?  To whom are they spread and how?  Does anything happen after these ideas are disseminated, or does TED simply move on to the next?  A mystery.

Reflecting on this comparative work, I’m prompted to ask, Why should a complex institution be expected—indeed, required—to account for more than a century of history in ten words or less?  The main reason seems to be the brevity of attention spans in a noisy world of competing claims.  Persons and institutions are now reduced to “brands” not unlike breakfast cereals.  Attention must be captured quickly before the consumer/potential donor moves on to the next shiny box on the shelf.  Failure to formulate a pitch capable of grabbing this attention is now seen as evidence of institutional disarray or incompetence.

No surprise, then, that politics and many other arenas of modern life have been reduced to a marketplace of slogans that have powerful emotive force (“I’m a true conservative.”  “Make America great again.”) without evoking deeper questions about the why, the how, the when.

Which suggests that I’ve got work to do to improve this blog.  My honest if unstated mission statement would be something like “Stuff I write to amuse myself at 5 a.m. before another day of strategic planning meetings and reviewing fund-drive spreadsheets” (20 words).  That clearly won’t do.  How about “Making anthropology great again!” or “Traveling upriver to profound truths”?  Not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.


On the ecology of attention, don’t miss a smart essay published in the Pacific Standard on February 23, 2016:  Caleb Caldwell, “A Better Way of Talking about Attention Loss.

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