Thursday, June 12, 2008

Deep Focus and the New Dark Age (Part I)

Over the past few days, I've had quite a bit of time to focus on living without electricity. It is a wondrous thing we've mastered: energy. And in so many ways we've built our lives around it. So when storms cause power outages, daily life is changed. Lucky for me I have plenty of books, and the entire world was not without electricity (meaning Starbucks is the bright light in the darkness - as they never run out of power).

The events of the storm, and a recent WAMU radio show I heard on my car radio started me thinking about the direction of culture. That's not completely true. I started thinking about it a week earlier (known as "the golden age of electricity"), when I noticed that a television show was "frozen" to allow someone to be overlaid and make a commercial pitch. Yes, the show was in progress; the screen froze, and then a fellow appears with the show in the background, and the commercial begins. Why? Because those folks with DVRs are skipping commercials. The DVR is also responsible for the bottom of the screen always beubg filled with ads and commercial, and now the shows are stopping in the middle to prevent DVR drivers from skipping past the commercials (I love my DVR.

In any case, that's when I started thinking about this topic. Then synchronicity brings about a power failure and a show on a related topic. It's a must I post about it.

So what am I going on about? Two topics really, which is why I have a PART I on this post. One topic is culture and commodities, and the other topic is deep focus - our attention span (I wonder how many people have stopped reading by this point? :> )

Recently, on the Diane Rehm show, the subject of "Distraction and Democracy" was the focus. The guests spoke quite a bit about the decreasing attention span of our culture, while making a few predictions about the future. One guest, Maggie Jackson, has even written a book on the subject: Distraction: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. I've yet to read it, but from what I've garnered, she compares historical moments, focusing on "ages of darkness," and concludes that our present culture is on a historical precipice for a new dark age (that's surface information in action). That is to say, it seems there are quite a few similarities to the present historical moment and previous historical moments prior to the onset of a dark age.

What I'm going to ramble about is something similar - but maybe I'll hold off on the dark age aspect as I've yet to read her book. Instead, I'll touch upon the fact that we do live in society with a reducing attention span. And our culture is growing around the need to reduce the attention span all the more. Television is always the first suspect when hunting for the cause of reduced attention spans. The Internet is a popular second. As television has been covered quite a bit, I'll stick to the Internet. Seldom are books and dictionaries (printed versions) blamed.

A technological marvel, and the world's thinest layer of information is the Internet. Almost any topic can be found on the Internet, but seldom is more than a "page" or two of information pulled up. The Internet is a great glosser (my word) of data. Want to learn about an event in history? Wikipedia will have a page that sums it up. If not there, then a blog (uh oh). But usually the blog post will be brief (ha-ha), sometimes a two part post, and then a few comments. There is no "deep focus," such as found in a book on the topic. And it's easy! This means we spend less time reading a web-page on Aristotle's book on ethics then we do reading Nicodemian Ethics. This is termed surface information - Cliff's Notes, or Spark's Notes, etc. In fact, in today's culture, who has time to read Nicodemian Ethics, except for those in the academic world? This is how our culture reinforces the need for surface information. What was once a convenience is now becoming a necessity. That is to say, in the Information Age, we have a need for less information.

Of course, there are many causes for our need of surface information. But regardless of the causes, our culture is pushing us into a condition of being vaguely informed rather than deeply informed. All of this begs a question. Are we losing our ability to retain a deep focus on a subject? Many say "yes," and fault television with its quick commercials, sound bites, and news channels with talking head and tickers at the bottom (which is how most television shows look today). Others cite video games and the Internet for the aforementioned reasons, and too overall much variety of entertainment. Perhaps these things are all sources of the problem, but they are no longer independent issues. Each one has mingled with our culture and with our drive-through lifestyles. It seems they can no longer be singled out. It is how we live, and we live a life of distraction. Such a culture pushes for the need of surface knowledge, and reduced time investment in gathering knowledge. It seems ironic that the Information Age can bring about the Uninformed Age.

Naturally, this puts books on the endangered species list because books do require deep focus. Then again, maybe not. Books can be written to be fluffy and fast, and if we don't look beneath the surface of the words (as our culture teaches us to do), then even books becomes collections of surface information.

Hopefully my electricity will be restored by the time this post hits the Internet, and I can find other distractions. :) I'll follow with Part II, and our commodity culture, which is a part of this topic.


Jeff Edwards said...

Hmm? I know I wanted to type something, but my attention was diverted by a Flash animation in another window open on my screen. Ha ha.

Oh I remember. First, I wanted to say, I hope you brought some manuscripts along with some books to Starbucks, given your workload right now!

On to the actual topic. What usually happens with me is, I am overwhelmed by the amount of subjects and data available out there, which leads not so much to a shallow focus but a lack of focus! As in, "Wow, there is so much I'd like to learn about...where do I start? Never mind, I'll just turn on the TV." I love to learn, but I am frustrated because it's impossible to learn EVERYTHING, isn't it? (Although this may not apply to the black boxes over at Blackmoore Global.) My struggle is to pick a narrow topic in order to be able to apply some deep focus.


John Goodrich said...

The Information Age is leading to the Uninformed Age precisely because we have so many choices. We can find people who agree with our standpoints, and, having found validation, we look no further. There is so much information available that we must be well-informed, right?

I don't know what to do about short attention-span. It's damned difficult to combat the average shot time in a film is below five seconds, even less so on television.

Steve Buchheit said...

I loved that Diane Rehm episode, I've replayed it twice already. Both guest were excellent. (and I love that show, especially because she interviews a lot of writers)

As for the power going out, I remember an episode of Connections where the host started with the premise of "the power has gone out, permanently. How do you survive?" What followed next was a whole series of "more than likely, you'll die here. But lets say you (find, use, know, etc, something to get you past this hurdle), then you have this (new hurdle) waiting for you. Eventually you make it to an abandoned farm. While then ended with the question, "Do you know how to use these tools, could you survive until you had a garden growing, and do you know how to replant seeds?" (my wife has advanced biology degrees, that last part of the question isn't as flip as it may sound).

Voland said...

Mark E. Smith of the UK indy band "The Fall" coined the word "Infotainment" in the mid-Eighties to describe the phenomenon. The popular media are presenting information as a consumable product - it must be constantly renewed, constantly consumed. The number of people I meet who feel compelled to watch the news religiously in order to "keep up with events" is quite shocking - particularly as most people consume news "shows" (I use the word advisedly) at face value, without seeing their sociopolitical agendas - the old terrorist-vs-freedom fighter dichotomy.

Likewise I've been taken aback by the number of people in the UK constantly fiddling with their mobile phones - texting, ceaselessly photographing and sending photos, phoning one another. Just what substance does all this spasmodic communication have?

Personally I think this is a temporary phenomenon, tied in with our era of compulsive and increasingly mandatory consumption. First was the TV as status symbol; next the PC; next the Internet; next the mobile phone. These gadgets enable a simulation of information - essentially flashing lights - which feeds a corporate-inspired lack, the need to feel "in touch", "one of the crowd", in short - to belong.

Is it the onset of a new Dark Age? To be honest, I don't think past ages have been all that light either, so probably not. All we are seeing is one of the hallowed precincts of intellectual activity - "Learning and Knowledge" - commodified and shoved out for mass consumption in a society which has never been overly impressed by substance, especially when set against a garish eye-candy form. It will be galling for those of us who define ourselves in terms of our knowledge to have our own learning apparently appropriated by discourses which care nothing for its sophistication, but instead use it in glorified social grooming activities, but that has ever been the fate of those valuing learning.

The symptom of the self-aware consciousness is a nagging feeling that everything is about to go to the dogs. This time, with annoying ringtones and flashing lights, I fear is no different. Plus ca change...

Steve Buchheit said...

BTW, in case anybody wanted to listen to that show
There's a real player link and a windows media player link. Also, I think all of her shows are available as podcasts through iTunes.

MKeaton said...

I would add to this discussion a quick look at our own industry, specifically short fiction. When I started in this mess (we had fire but were still suspicious of the wheel), a short story of 10K was not too long to submit to the average magazine. Over the years, I've seen that limit drop to 7500 then 5000 and now 3500-4000 seems to be the coming norm. In addition, flash fiction seems to be a bottomless market that can never be satiated.


Charles Gramlich said...

I know my own attention span has shrunk but it's at least partially a function of what I'm doing. My attention span for internet information and TV is very short, but when I sit down to read a book my attention span automatically seems to increase again.

I think you're right that books can certainly be written to be fluffy and I see quite a lot of that out there. Still and all, books generally do require deeper focus and it's a skill that I hope we can continue to teach people to develop. Otherwise we'll soon end up with "ideocracy."

William Jones said...

Jeff - You're right about the overwhelming about of information. This is the age of info and info-products. I suppose what I'm wondering about is are we moving in the right direction? Access to information is useful - or as useful as the information is. And it seems we need to be surrounded with random bits of data.

Of course, one of the early concerns about the thesaurus was that it would be misused by people who did not understand the words they were using (too much information with no depth of information; it was up to the user to understand the words). Perhaps we've run into the same problem but on a larger scale.

John - I think you're onto something there. If the answer agrees with an opinion, why look any further. I wonder how many times surface info on the Internet is taken as final proof? I know I've seen it many times in the classroom.

You're also correct about film and television. It is passing into fiction as well. Long sentences are considered by many editors to be too much for the general reader.

William Jones said...

Steve - Diane Rehm has a great show, and I did listen to that episode a few times. I've also ordered one of the books, and will probably move along to the second once I'm done with the first. I make some gesture toward "deep focus."

Regarding the power, and your example of how we survive without it, you make a great point that I hope to touch upon in my next post - and I think Voland speaks to this somewhat. Our society is one of surface knowledge and commodity. We can buy what we need or the services we need. That is sometimes termed "superstructure." But I'll not venture into that area. :)

William Jones said...

Voland - You're quite right about the "infotainment." I'll mention the often "dread" name of Theodor Adorno, who wrote a book titled, The Culture Industry. One of its many points is that culture, and everything that is a part of culture, has become an industry, a business, a commodity. To quote a passage form the book:

The culture industry fuses the old and familiar into a new quality, In all its branches, products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extend determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan.


In the broadest sense, we have a culture that needs to consume everything - information, material, time, entertainment. And the one of the means of feeding that need is by using "New and Improved" (the old resold as the new).

In respect to you comment about learning and knowledge, I see quite often the advertisements of universities stating that they "prepare students for a career." Institutions of education simply teaching the skills of occupation seems rather startling. Somehow that feels like "surface knowledge," as students are taught enough to work in a given field and not to go beyond it. Most surprising though is that students often rally behind this - feeling education that is not job related is a useless commodity (as many view "education" as a commodity).

MK - A well made point. As I mention in one of my above posts, even sentence length is under attack. I fear that many young adult novels are popular with adults, not because they are great works of fiction, but because they are easier to read. This doesn't mean that there is something wrong with YA novels. Rather, it seems worrisome for non-YA novels.