Our Environment Has Changed

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In the book The Distracted Mind, by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, they say:

“Human beings seem to exhibit an innate drive to forage for information in much the same way that other animals are driven to forage for food”
The Distracted Mind

We have always been obsessed with information, and information in this day and age is more readily available than ever. This is why big companies like Facebook and Instagram are so popular and effective at getting our attention. They then exchange your attention for information, which in turn has created a hook that keeps you coming back for more.

We are information addicts, especially in this day and age, where everything we ever need is available through a push or tap of a button. All of this information encourages distraction and our attention to wonder. The craving for new information, whether useful or not, is what takes our attention away from the mediocre or important tasks we are trying to focus on. As Gazzely and Rosen show in their book, our need for information is nothing new, but it’s the channels in which we obtain this information that is new and dangerous.

Google It

With the rise of Google and readily available information, do we really need to concentrate to remember the information we are consuming? In 2011 there was a study carried out by neuroscientist Betsy Sparrow investigating the consequences of having information at our fingertips.

“People actively do not make the effort to remember when they think they can look up information later,”
Betsy Sparrow

I believe that this is one of the main causes for lack of attention in the modern day. It is far too easy to be focused on work when something pops into your head that you need to know the answer to. So you take out your phone or open your laptop and “Google it”. Within seconds your brain is overloaded with information and dopamine that encourages you to keep on the tangent.

This concept of Google being your brain is so evident in today’s society and I think it has become a part of our culture to “Google it”. Without the need to show any intellectual thinking for yourself, people are often too quick to let Google do the work without thinking of the problem or solution themselves.

On-demand

It’s not just search engines that are a sign of the changing environment. With the rise of on-demand streaming, TV channels are making changes to the ad breaks. Nearly 30 years after the 30-second slot was deemed the standard ad length we now have slots as little as 5 seconds. Gone are the days where you had to sit through those five-minute ad breaks in-between your favourite TV show and be bombarded with ads.

Shannon Lords, Executive Producer at Great Bowery film, said in a recent article for the Huffington Post:

“The effects of our increasingly digitised lifestyle have made us into the speed daters of storytelling”

Lords also talks about “the 6” which is a 6 second ad designed to target the peak of our attention spans. Most ads have moved towards the 6 second mark, online and on TV. Fox’s 6 second ad slot is the same price as their 15 second slot. This should really say something to how we have evolved in 30 years, from easily watching a continuous string of ads to barely being able to focus on a 6 second ad.

With the rise of on-demand watching and big companies like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, we’ve slowly faded those ad breaks out of our lives. No more getting up to go to the fridge, or muting the TV until your favourite show comes back on. Now we live in a world where our attention is already won by our smartphones during the ads, or even during the show itself.

This concept of using your smartphone through a show is a perfect example of how our attention span has changed. You can clearly see this in effect when checking Twitter to see if anyone is talking about the show you’re currently watching. The idea of this is completely contradictory to the idea of sitting down to concentrate on the show but end up distracted by our mobile phones.

E-books

To touch on the topic that was first mentioned and the biggest pain point for myself is reading. Although books themselves haven’t changed much over time, the way we read them certainly has. Books are now available in a range of formats now such as printed, e-books and even audio.

E-books in my opinion, make it easy to cut corners when reading and search for keywords to get to the topics that you want to read about. This method is totally flawed and limits discovery and the enjoyment of getting immersed in a book. Also, your attention is likely to wander more when reading an e-book because you simply don’t know how far along you are with it. Whereas a physical book you can see and feel the pages to know how much you have read and how much you still have to read.

The argument may arise that it would be easier to read an e-book as it is essentially like an intimate scroll, so why are we not addicted to books like we are addicted to our social media newsfeeds? I believe these are two different types of information consumption, social media feeds contain small, bitesize chunks of information. But a book is one continuous story that requires your full concentration to understand and appreciate. You can’t simply look at it with glazed over eyes and hope you reach the end.

There are opinions that e-books are easier to read for someone that suffers from ADHD because it breaks books into small snippets that they can consume and process more effectively. In an article written by Ellen Harvey in 2013 called Why I Hate Reading E-Books, she explores this issue.

“Reading a book, one ADD-diagnosed woman claimed, was simply too overwhelming, but reading became manageable on a segmented e-book.”
Ellen Harvey - Why I Hate Reading E-Books

Although Harvey points out that no official studies have been carried out on this yet to explore the subject, I think it’s a very interesting take. I would agree that reading bitesize information of small, short stories would be helpful on an e-book. However, I would argue that longer and more complex books would be harder to follow and by compartmentalising it into smaller sections that the author has already created would add more confusion to the book.

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