One of my hobbies besides studying apophenia, stochastics, semiotics, etymology, forecasting, propaganda, neurology and Sumerian literature is paying a lot of attention to, well, attention, as in what people can (and do) use their brain to focus on.
On the surface, I’m exactly the wrong freaking guy to be giving a discourse about it because I tend to write very long blog posts, most often read by Romanians who speak English as a second language, use a mix of illiterate street argot and “difficult” or more obscure slash “advanced” vocabulary and in my “spare” time I produce documentaries which are far too long in most people’s opinion. I also write books few people can finish reading and in general I inhabit some kind of world that is so lengthy and obtuse that few people can pay attention to the vast bulk of it.
Nonetheless, I find the whole subject fascinating :) I have a friend right here in Unicorn City who manages a tiny pub slash bar called “2 Minutes”, named thusly precisely because he cut his teeth here in town by showing short films that literally were two minutes long or less. He’s a very smart guy. In this modern age, most people can rarely pay attention to anything longer than that.
Last week I had a camera crew following me around, which consisted of a vehicle emblazoned with the logo of a national network, a correspondent standing near me and a camera man who had an enormous camera. It was one of those extremely expensive “professional” models with dials and switches and multiple microphone inputs and a big light source on the front. Nobody born in the last 100 years could fail to notice it and immediately identify it as a big fucking camera. I mean the lens on it was as wide as a dinner plate.
So we would be walking somewhere or standing some place and the correspondent guy would tell me, “Hey go talk to those people” and I’d walk up to them, say something (to get their attention) and every single time they’d look at me for a second and then snap their necks around as they noticed this gigantic camera pointed their way. And most of the time they’d say, “Hey don’t film me.”
Now clearly if you’re only in town for a limited time (the crew drove up from Bucharest to do this) and you want to get some good footage, you can’t put down the camera and quit recording every time someone says, “Don’t film me”. But what I discovered, quite to my surprise, was all I had to do was wave my hand. If the camera (man) was off to my right, all I had to do was wave my left hand. Literally every single time the person in question would track the movement of my hand, thereby looking away from the camera, and then I would continue talking to them. And the combination of following my hand and listening to my voice would distract their attention and then they’d completely forget about the camera.
Quite interesting, I must say. It was absurdly easy to do, even in the case of talking to a seasoned police officer, whose job theoretically involves paying attention to things more than say, the average person scurrying down the street on their way to work or something.
Another one of my hobbies is studying “magic”, not as in the “violet flame” or supernatural energies but rather the tricks and sleights of hand performed by people as a form of entertainment. Mind you, I can’t make a coin “disappear” or do card “tricks” or anything else but I am quite fascinated with the way that magicians manipulate people’s attention. Besides some manual dexterity, getting you to look at and focus on one thing while “secretly” doing something else is pretty much all that magicians do, if you think about it.
Therefore, in a weird kind of way, I was doing a bit of “magic” myself here this past week, waving my hand and making people forget that a gigantic camera was pointed right at them. I almost was required to do this because just about everybody, when they know they’re being recorded, gets nervous and acts jittery and amped up and stops acting “natural” and it definitely comes across and thus pretty much ruins the whole thing. So somehow you’ve got to make them forget about the monster sized camera (belonging to a national network) so you can interact with them in such a way that everything turns out great. Which it did :)
The only people I encountered who never failed to be distracted by my simple techniques were elderly people. And I can only surmise that their brains are all wired in a different way because they weren’t formed in anything akin to a “modern” age, especially since if you do the math you quickly realize that they grew up before television broadcasts were even invented or widespread (or computers, obviously) and as children they were casting their eyes on books or fields planted with potatoes or other more organic things.
Having a short and easily distracted attention is (in my opinion) the very hallmark of the modern age. If you flew into some remote jungle somewhere and hung out with the natives, you’d quickly see they have far longer attention spans than anyone in the “modern” world.
If you ever study the techniques that people used (and in some parts of the world, still use) to hunt animals, it requires an unbelievably lengthy concentration of attention. You can’t simply pop out of your hut and throw a spear or shoot an arrow and kill an animal. Instead you’ve got to stealthily follow a very long series of trails and indications and clues in order to track down your dinner. And the majority of the time, even for a seasoned and skilled hunter, you still fail.
Elderly people or those who didn’t grow up in a modern age (like say, in some rural area with no television or computers) are the only people I know who can hold and sustain a lengthy conversation, complete with trenchant observations and other clear signs that they are able to hold their attention on a given subject for far longer than two minutes. Conversely you can look at old movies like The Longest Day, clocking in at 178 minutes (3 hours) or My Fair Lady (170 minutes) and realize that in the past, mainstream, big budget movies were often far, far longer than anything cranked out today. Clearly these were made for people whose attention span was far greater. And again, if you do the math, any young adult in the early 1960s would now be the same age as the elderly Romanians I was speaking to last week.
And so I find myself kind of barking up the wrong tree, historically speaking. I write and produce longer pieces for a world that is increasingly fixated on videos (and written material) that is shorter and shorter. Twitter is gaining in popularity every year and that is, by definition, 140 letters in length. My Facebook “feed” is spammed non-stop with jokey images or two-panel cartoons (which look as though they took 2 minutes to draw) and other items that take literally only a microsecond to comprehend. Nowadays if you actually have to “stop” and type something into Google, well that’s a fair bit of effort.
Every month I attend a meeting where we swap books (in English) and I’ve been delegated as sort of the unofficial librarian because I keep all of the hundreds of unwanted books here at my house. And so every month I bring a selection with me to the meeting and urge people to take them home and read them because I’ve literally read all of them. I didn’t do this by some Herculean feat of speed reading but by plowing through them, one page at a time.
And yet time and time again, people are always astonished (or sometimes bitterly envious) that I can read “so much”. I work full time, I prosecute a fairly active social life and I do all of my “Sam Cel Roman” stuff and yet still I find the time to read all these books simply because I’ve got the ability to focus my attention on doing it. To me it all seems normal and ordinary and humdrum but whenever I compare notes with other people it’s almost like I’m going through three times the experiences in any given week than anyone else.
What I’m trying to say here folks is that all those TV shows and movies and other accouterments of modern life (such as computer games and “surfing” the Internet), whether being watched on a proper television or displayed on your computer monitor, are drastically shortening your mental attention span.
Obviously what you choose to do with your life is up to you but I got to tell you it’s not really doing you that much good. And, in my opinion, you’re missing out on a hell of a lot. By not reading longer pieces (including entire books) you’re missing out on a lot of good stuff. By not being able to engage in lengthy conversations, you’re missing out on one of the sweeter pleasures in life. And by not being able to concentrate very well for more than two minutes, a lot of the tasks and requirements of ordinary life (such as your job, for example, or formal studies in school) become overwhelmingly tiresome and mentally fatiguing.
As I said, do what you want to do. But try giving the internet, television, computer games and movies a short break and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised :)