Wednesday, July 28, 2010


It is generally accepted that Americans have a short attention span.  I believe this to be true, and I think I am an example.  I have sat in numerous academic roundtables, where non-Americans take 10 minutes to make a point that Americans would make in 2.  Just give me the gist, and let's move on; a roundtable is not a place for definitive proofs, but for raising ideas.  While in Germany, I began reading a news magazine called Focus, and I remarked to a colleague that the articles in it were very long compared to its American counterparts such as Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.  She said she was surprised, because the articles in Focus were shorter than those in other German magazines.

I like things to make a point, but I can't say that having a short attention span is necessarily good.  I admit that I would benefit from having a little more patience to read longer articles.  There is definitely a tradeoff between getting down to business quickly, and being superficial.

It is commonly accepted that television is in part responsible for our short attention spans.  Oddly enough, though, I find that I have too little attention for television.  Ad breaks are, of course, annoying, but what really bothers me is the fluff that goes into the average broadcast.  I occasionally watch SportsCenter, and I have grown utterly sick of the opening theme music.  I know why they play it so much (to build a brand), but I just want to hear the news.  Then, right before a commercial break, they tell you what is coming up...after the second following commercial break.  Again, it is an understandable tactic to keep you watching, but it drives me nuts.

The fundamental problem with t.v., or video of any sort, is that it is linear.  Often I don't want to watch a good portion of the news, but I'm stuck watching it anyway because you only get one part at a time.  This is what really turned me off to news broadcasts.  Liberal bias is everywhere and it is annoying, but Fox news is subject to the same limitations of linearity as the others.  In a newspaper, I can quickly scan the headlines and decide which articles I want to read; and I can stop reading at any point, if I have gotten the information I wanted.  (News is typically written in an "inverted pyramid" structure, with the most important information first, which encourages skimming (though probably not intentionally -- it's made to grad readers' attention).  It also leads to a lot of duplication as the article delves into details, as opposed to a more expository approach that reveals details in sequence.)

Hypertext is wonderful for facilitating skimming, but a plain old newspaper also works pretty well.  Video, whether on television or on the web, is inherently linear.  That's why I normally skip all video links that I see, even if the topic interests me.

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