The wealth of information versus the poverty of attention

Is the future of the novel in jeopardy due to a decline in the average person’s attention span?

By Amelia Young

ABSTRACT

This article discusses the problems faced by the publishing industry in the sight of the Microsoft consumer study in 2000, which showed the average attention span having dropped from 12 seconds to 8. Discussed is whether technology is the root cause for this problem, and whether it is affecting reading levels – and in turn book sales. Many voices of the literary world speak of their concern for this, and for the changes needed by the publishing industry and by the individual reader, to sort out this problem.

KEY WORDS

Attention Span, Digital Technology, Augmented Realities, The Reading Agency, Cognitive Development, Multitasking, Literary Sales.

 

INTRODUCTION

In John Carreyrou’s novel, Bad Blood, a character named Sunny asks a young engineer for information. In return, the engineer replies with an email consisting of over 500 words. In doing this, he perceived that the lengthy email would bring him “several weeks of peace because Sunny simply didn’t have the patience to read long emails.”

Sunny’s likely disinclination to read a long email reflects a problem that today’s publishers have with readers. Reading requires concentration, and a consumer study (Microsoft, 2000) showed that the average attention span of workers in an office environment had decreased from 12 to 8 minutes. This shortening of attention span has clear implications for an individual’s inclination and aptitude to apply themselves to the reading of lengthier texts, and to focus in depth on the text.

Currently, there is a consistent fall in the sale of literary fiction and increasing fear among authors and publishers for the future of the novel. The author Claire Messud, (Messud, cited in Adams 2017) even expressed her concern that, “maybe in fifty years there won’t be novels”. She was fortunate that publishers continued to promote her work despite initial low sales before her eventual success as a widely-sold author. She says that publishers are now increasingly reluctant to publish debut authors, due to the sales risk.

The Economist published the comment that “if literacy is book reading, fewer people are equipped to read a book today than before the Age of Information”. Writer, Howard Jacobson, (Jacobson, cited in Cain 2018) speaking at the Man Booker festival, voiced that the novel is not at fault when facing the industry’s problem of falling sales: “I think the novel is in quite good health. I think there are some terrific novels being written”. He shares the view of many that the problem is not with the novel, “The problem is the reader who lacks the attention span to enjoy the intellectual challenge of reading”.

There are so many options for handheld entertainment and information that people learn to habitually flick through them rather than concentrating the mind on a single thing. Herbert Simon, (Simon, cited by Sagor 2013) a Nobel winning economist, in 1977 argued that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. The information available is spread out on multiple platforms, and with more information comes less attention, and “the need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

WHY IS THERE A PROBLEM?

The rise of the technological era, especially the introduction of smart phones in the last decade, has proven to be a significant factor behind the decline in attention span. Certainly, the fall in sales of literary fiction in recent years coincides with the age of social media, mobile phones and electronic entertainment where attention deficit disorder has become rampant. Societal norms reinforce keeping mobile devices on your person with the number of mobile phone users in the world set to pass the five billion mark by 2019 (Technology and Telecommunication, Statista, 2014). The smart phone gives access to unlimited content, either through app downloads or the internet. Being able to access such a vast amount of information results in a tendency to spread available concentration between numerous sources of information, flicking constantly between apps or websites. The ability to concentrate or focus attention on any one thing becomes lost as the media itself fights for the attention of the individual. A form of multitasking takes place when reading content – this has led to the human brain to have adapted its attention span “to this new information flood”. The cognitive effort required here is less, and concerns scientists as to whether the growth of crucial developmental skills will become limited. Ken Pugh, (Pugh, cited in Newton 2018) a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale, stated that: “Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode”. This fragmented time spending and lack of engagement with content is even mirrored in multi-media advertising. The focus of advertisements is not on relaying information to the audience, instead on simply catching their attention. Due to the amount of time that we spend on mobile devices, we are now accustomed to scanning information, ignoring depth and detail. Jaja Liao (2016) described how the majority of people get their news from their mobiles rather than from the web, leading the news companies to concentrate on designing their media outlet for a small screen. This results in a decrease in the length of news articles, and therefore audiences are becoming used to consuming a smaller amount of content daily. Not only do they get into the habit of reading shorter text, they believe they get the sufficient amount of information from them.

A newsletter from Summit Middle School included Amy Blankson’s (Thrive Global, 2017) Five Strategies to Improve Focus in the Digital Era. The inclusion of this type of advice in a school newsletter written to parents, shows how widely this problem is recognised. In the Five Strategies, Blankson wrote “scrolling through phones has become a reflex to empty moments – using tech to zone out rather than tune in”. Prior to carrying smart phones, a book would have been sufficient to carry as a form of entertainment for those wanting to read in their spare moments.

The habitual overtake of reading multiple passages of shorter text online to previous reading of physical texts means that the reader forms a tendency to use the pattern of “skim, skip, flick”. Christine Ro explained “repetitions and association are cornerstones of memory, but it can be hard to draw links and go over the same themes if we’re essentially chain-smoking books”. We become so attuned to reading such small quantities and being able to skip content to content, that we no longer have a want to read long in-depth material. Why push ourselves in the name of entertainment when other shorter forms are so much easier to access? Many believe that this multitasking of app use could be related to a decline in attention span and subsequently an inability to concentrate on the longer text of a novel. Posner (Posner, cited in Strom 2014) published “neuroscientists have discovered that multitasking jeopardizes the capacity for deep sustained attention while stunting ability to detect and comprehend lessons that are most relevant”. This is a subject often commented on in studies. Robert D. Strom stated that “the demands of multitasking on sustained attention reduce the ability to learn”. Not only has the attention been taken from books, but the substitution is influencing our mind in a way that it won’t fit with the length and effort reading a book needs. Books used to be a foundation of knowledge and the ability to stay focused and learn from them remains pivotal in society.

IS THIS AFFECTING READING LEVELS? 

Interest in the subject of attention span spiked after a release from Microsoft stating that a human attention span has decreased from 12 to 8 minutes. Data from the Department of Education reported that “just over a fifth of 17 year-olds said they read almost every day for fun in 2004, down from nearly a third in 1984”. By the age of 17 most will already have a phone, and will be used to this non-focused, multitasking mentality. Nicholas Carrin’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? described the influence that technology has on him personally. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation”. It seems likely that humans have adapted to technology so intensely that the norms have changed and we now have a limiting patience, “as social media also increasingly found its way into all of our lives, we, humans seem to have adapted our attention span to this new information flood”. Jaja Liao (writing for The Start-up) referred to the concept of continual bombardment with information and the need to consider our way of dealing with this. He concluded that individuals have unconsciously “shortened our attention span from 12 to 8 minutes to help us multi-task, prioritize, and consume quickly and efficiently”.

Jacobson (Jacobson, cited by Cain 2018) spoke of addressing an audience member at a talk in London at the Man Booker festival. The audience member described how her publisher pushed her to write a “page turner”. Jacobson went on to describe how she had encompassed the “tragic state we are in” in the publishing industry – how advising her to write specifically an attention catching novel “encapsulated the problem at the moment.” The wonder of books is the variety of forms – advising authors to all aim for the same thrill read will arguably only create repetitive stagnant content.

There has been research into whether a shorter attention span parallels exactly with readers wanting less content to consume. It cannot be assumed that readers wouldn’t make an effort with reading longer content if it suits their interests. The New York Times top 10 stories had the highest average word count at above 2,000 words illustrating that long-form is accepted if the topic discussed is worthy of the length. “We are willing to actively sustain our attention span, but only if the quality is truly interesting and engaging”. Maybe due to our supposedly dwindling attention spans we are more specific in what we choose to engage and spend time on, therefore publishers will concentrate on quality of content.

WHAT CAN BE DONE – PERSEVERE OR ADAPT?

The issue of attention span leading to a lack of people reading can either be overcome by adapting or persevering. Many projects have been set up to encourage reading, particularly for the younger generation. UK literacy charities such as The Reading Agency have initiated programmes with the aim of encouraging children to read such as the Summer Reading Challenge which encourages children aged 4–11 to read six books during their school holiday – recognising the importance of reading for a child’s cognitive development. Another of their reading schemes Quick Reads, launched in 2006, works with authors to release short stories under 100 words – the aim is to engage adult readers, and copies are distributed at adult-learning institutions. An example of embracing the shortened reading material are a group of readers who started Short Attention Span Book Club which a member praised as it led her to “read over 50 books, which is probably 45 more books than I would have read on my own”.  H. Jacobson, (Jacobson, cited in Cain 2018) who mentioned how publishers advise the writing of books for the aim to simple thrill the reader, emphasised the need to change the mentality of the reader. “Here’s the challenge: how do we educate the reader, so they don’t want to want it. Who committed the murder, who the hell cares!” Help is being given in the encouragement of reading in school, and with reading schemes, however the reader needs to make effort themselves.

If the publishing industry does not have the power to sort out the root problem of the distracted modern reader, maybe it is a problem that we should adapt to. Perhaps it is the duty of the author to adapt to the times. Previous attempts to compete with the digital age was to adapt text to screen. James McQuiveya Forrester Research Analyst, (McQuivey, cited in Bosman & Richtel 2012) described tablets as “a temptress”. It’s constantly saying “you could be on YouTube now”. Or it’s sending constant alerts that pop up, saying you just got an e-mail. “Reading itself is trying to compete”.

There are ways in which publishers and authors are making an effort to adapt. Augmented reality has the power to help literature advance and appeal to an audience not normally captivated by traditional text on page. Building a more interactive experience with the reader could focus their attention without taking anything away from the original work. The Masters of the Sun project is an augmented reality graphic novel, an idea created by Will.i.am. An app can be downloaded with the novel, so that when the reader hovers their phone over areas of the book it ‘comes alive’. The use of audio, video and a specific soundtrack collectively build a world interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention. Will.i.am described the project as involving “things that we’ve never done. Things that the industry hasn’t done”. Although this is not a separation from technology, it is a way to adapt and embrace the problems faced, and meet the desires of a new audience. Judith Briles, writing for The Book Designer wrote how “short is the new black” and how the undoubtable reduction in her audience’s attention span suggests to her that authors “first need to write visually, and second, to write short”.

TO CONCLUDE – THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT?

Two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca, expressed the view that “to be everywhere is to be nowhere”. His reference was to travellers whom he perceived to have many acquaintances but few friends. These travellers met many people but had little in-depth human interaction. Would Seneca have seen a parallel between his travellers and today’s ‘skimmers’ of printed text? The Nobel Laureate Herbert. A. Simon viewed “in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a death of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients […] Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. Simon realised the importance of allocating attention to the right places and “the need to allocate that attention among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”. Clive Thompson (Thompson, cited in Strom 2008) shared their view, stating that “information is no longer a scarce resource, but attention is”.

It is undeniable that there has been a drop in the amount of people that read for enjoyment. Technology has changed the attention capacity of the reader and has replaced books as a form of entertainment. However, there is the potential for growth in the book industry with efforts being made to adapt to the modern reader. Finding a way to involve all forms of learning into literature, will bring interest to the novel and a way to involve those who previously wouldn’t have found reading inviting. Technology can be used to enhance literature, but it should not be the complete solution. A more organic approach is needed and the opportunities that technology gives us should not need to take away from the original project. Donna E. Alvermann, working as a professor of language and linguistic viewed, “kids are using sound and images, so they have a world of ideas to put together that aren’t necessarily language oriented – books aren’t out of the picture, but they’re only one way of experiencing information in the world today”. With the continued development of reading schemes which set out to encourage enjoyment of reading from a young age and evolvements like augmented reality being introduced to the industry, we can modernise without cheapening the original product.

There is a certain positive irony in the fact that Michael Stipe wrote the imaginative lyrics for The End of the World as We Know It whilst skimming channels using the handset for his television. There should be enough optimism in the future of publishing to be not looking at a doomsday scenario for the novel. It is within the very nature of humans to want to tell, read or listen to stories. This they have done for countless centuries and it is part of the aggregate that forms the human consciousness.

 

 

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