We all know — or like me, may have — a child who struggles with paying attention. A Slate article by psychology professor Barry Schwarz is not about clinical diagnoses. It’s about a generation that is growing up with under-five-minute videos and SNL skits, 140-character tweets, and cable-news sound bites. How we need to teach them how to pay attention if they are to truly get ahead in life.
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?
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.
Even the ingenious TED talks should be reexamined, Schwarz feels, since their 18-minute length is now considered an “extensive” look at any given complex idea. While commercial enterprises may be a lost cause, Schwarz thinks that our education system should teach the skill of paying attention, and cites the example of the KIPP schools in addressing the short spans of their students.