One of the perks of working at Rutgers is having colleagues — fellow faculty who have research interests that I could never pursue on my own, but which overlap in some ways with books I read and ideas I think about. Dr. Michael Lesk has had a long career in developing and understanding coding, information-retrieval, digital librarianship and other such fields which I make use of but do not understand. He also writes a column for a journal for information experts that deals with privacy and security, and he kindly sent me an advance piece from the January/February 2012 issue on the matter of attention span — something I touched on briefly in my last piece on horizontal and vertical knowledge.
Dr. Lesk contrasts the Lincoln-Douglas debates — where each candidate had 90 minutes to speak, and thus the public stood (no sitting), engaged, for 3 hours as two bright, articulate men explored crucial issues — and our political (much less our tweeting, personal) present. At a June Republican debate this summer, each candidate had 30 seconds to be beamed into our living rooms. He cites information about the speed up in examples from the length of telephone calls versus the time it takes to read a tweet to the pacing of movies that show a similar radical change in attention span. Though Marina and I both noticed that two films this year, J. Edgar and The Descendants, were written and directed to go at a slow pace. We wondered if, like book publishers who make their hardcovers fancier to contrast with ebooks, movie makers might be starting to slow down films, to make them different from “reality” shows and Youtube clips. But after listing many examples of a shift in our attention from long, slow, deep, to fast, scattered, but also broad (in other words, in ways a positive shift), he asks an important question: while we skitter from hit to hit, who is watching us?
Large retailers are not content to know what we looked at, or purchased, just now. Each place we visit, each purchase we make, deepens the profile they house of each of us. The long, deep record of who we are — including predications of what we will want — live in the databases of the online retailers we use every day. They are the historians. They need to know us all too well. Every example of seeming freedom to explore the now we experience — this search, this site, this buy we zoom into and out of — adds to their profiles. In a sense we live there, while we experience apparent freedom here. It is very much like the land of M. T. Anderson’s Feed — only we willingly swim into it, it is not implanted in us.
If we relate this to the CC and to kids, once again our mission is to give them the chance to slow down, to go deep, to be aware of themselves, not the victims of the present whose ghost souls live on in databases.