SWARTHMORE, Pa. —
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.
A person who is my age can read a very brief and oversimplified discussion of a complex issue and note that it is brief and oversimplified. Such a person might even try to go deeper by consulting other sources. But what of a person who has been raised from the crib on such material? For this person, there is no "brief and oversimplified." There is no experience of "long and complex" to provide a contrast. Before long, people stop realizing that they have an intellectual deficiency that needs correction. Oversimplified becomes the only game in town, at which point, it stops being "over" simplified. If people are fed a steady diet of the oversimple, it can't help but affect the way they think about things. Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.
It is easy to find villains in this war on attention. The news media, both print and broadcast, bear more than a little responsibility. So do magazines — even highbrow ones. What are the chances that we will ever see the like of "Hiroshima," by John Hersey (1946), "Eichmann in Jerusalem," by Hannah Arendt (1963), "A Sense of Where You Are," by John McPhee (1965), or "The Yellow Wind," by David Grossman (1988) in The New Yorker's pages ever again? And political discourse offers absolutely no exposure to complexity. I have no doubt that President Barack Obama has a subtle and agile mind. Yet he almost never demands such agility and subtlety from his audience, no doubt because his advisers are telling him about the public's short attention span.