Oh Reader, Where Art Thou?

I've been digesting some interesting theory on the human capacity for attention maintenance. In the 1850s, in the era of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, Americans could (and did, as the debates were popular) sit for hours, quietly attentive of some very complex rhetoric. Both speakers were eloquent, composing their thoughts extemporaneously with what Neil Postman has called "typographic" characteristics. 

Morse's telegraph changed things and, in 1854, the Associated Press was formed. In effect, Morse had conquered the dilemma of space and distance. News came in from all over, though much of it had little to do with the local needs of the various papers subscribing to these wire feeds. This is a precursor to what Henry Jenkins has called "churn" and other theorists have dubbed the "echo chamber": the recycling of opinion and reaction which is often repackaged as "news." This created what Postman called "impotent" news, for what was a bank robbery in New York City to a farmer in Des Moines? Indeed, our practical information-action ratio--those things upon which we can enact some control--seems diminished with the death of every local newspaper. We can offer a snarky comment on the latest celebrity news splashed across the MSN interface, or lament that a number of journalists were shot in Paris, but that's about it. 

Modern communication theory seems filled with such binaries:

  • informational impotence/practical utility
  • modernism/postmodernism
  • stuff/fluff
  • calculation/navigation
  • collaboration/prohibitionism
Postman called this decades ago: "In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use" (Amusing Ourselves to Death 67). Richard Lanham has called it, re-contextualized for the Internet, "attempting to drink from the fire hose of information."

So in the space of 160 years, we've shifted gears from sitting quietly for seven-hour debates to truncating data into soundbites and 140-character tweets. I'm not saying this is good or bad, mind you--just different than what came before.

But when we learn (via Pew) that about a quarter of Americans aren't reading so much as a single book in a year, this is unfortunate news. It says a lot about our ability to focus on actual ideas. Sure, we love instagram, but a photo is nothing more than a representation of a category of things at a moment in time. It takes an understanding of language to discern the meaning of something (an idea Turkle plumbs deftly in Life on the Screen's third chapter). Nature doesn't care about the "treeness" of a tree, but our language ascribes it meaning. 

And our ability to understand and digest important ideas seems deeply tied to our ability to maintain attention. 

Recommended reading for those interested in this topic: The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard Lanham. Excellent text. We'll be talking more about this throughout the next four months in RTV 4403, and thinking about the variety of ways we attract (and sustain) attention in our own media production...

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