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Farewell to the Attention Span


Our attention span and patience as a nation have become shorter.

Once upon a time people used to read the newspaper to learn about happenings in the world outside their doors. But those long columns of black and white were no match for the quicker information provided by the radio, where the news had already been sifted through and abridged by the radio station.

So once upon a time, (some time a little later, that is), people listened to the radio. But then the television began to provide information even faster through use of pictures as well as words. So the television replaced the radio. And now slowly the Internet is evolving as a source of information that is even faster than the television. Where does this desire for speed come from?

Has Sesame Street taken over the world? Is it hyperactivity caused by too much coffee and the ever-expanding Starbucks chain? Or is this just a manifestation of the evolution of our ever shorter attention spans?

I think evolution (or devolution, for that matter), may be the answer. It is better in the real world to concentrate only for a very short time on one thing. If the president starts to concentrate on the lack of broccoli in the American diet, he or she may have problems dealing with the rest of the world as well as the country, although broccoli farmers may be pleased. Even Jeopardy rewards the contestants who know one word questions about every eclectic topic.

Sesame Street is not solely to blame for the lack of attention in the country. Of course, those children who watch Sesame Street and learn the Spanish word for water are much better equipped to deal with the rest of the world and will have better life styles and more children etc., etc. But if the short attention span wasn't already important to American society, then children who developed it from Sesame Street would be no better off than other children.

Perhaps I need something to explain why I can't concentrate on any source book readings for an extended period of time. Whenever lectures run longer than the allotted fifty minutes, I lose the rest of it. Are we slowly being conditioned by Harvard, in its attempt to make us world leaders, to accept nothing longer than an hour?

Has patience ceased to be a virtue? Certainly the drivers of cars on Mt. Auburn believe so, especially when they see pedestrians. The reserve policies at libraries advocate impatience when they expect books to be returned in a few hours.

Perhaps we are just impatient with our information sources as well. While we complain as students that we are isolated from the rest of the world and often have no idea of the news, it may be our fault for wanting everything to be packaged neatly into 30-second soundbites that provide a synopsis of the world's events. But why is our generation blamed for our shorter attention spans when that is a trend for the rest of the country?

No one beverage, generation or television show is really to blame for this trend. As the media transmitting information to us changes, the amount of information reaching us from around the world increases. But as that increases, the complexity of any issue is simplified into a few minutes or seconds.

Of course, with so much information in the world, we may never realize what is known. Will we end up discovering things that other people have already discovered but we just didn't know? If things were like this when Thomas Edison was around, we might have had to tell him that the light bulb had already been invented and perhaps he should sit in on one of those "Learning how to use Hollis" sessions...if he could stay focused long enough.

Tanya Dutta's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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