On Memory and Attention Spans

Nostalgia alert: I remember reading an article called the Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite in one of my undergraduate courses years ago. I reread it the other day and this made me think of Americans' shrinking attention span (and this was written in 1990!):
An analysis of all weekday evening network newscasts (over 280) from Labor Day to Election Day in 1968 and 1988 reveals that the average "sound bite" fell from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to only 9.8 seconds in 1988. Meanwhile the time the networks devoted to visuals of the candidates, accompanied by their words, increased by more than 300 percent.
I think in a way the internet both helps and hinders in a situation like this. Helps because people can cruise over to YouTube or iTunes and get newscasts, speeches, transcripts, etc. We can essentially pay as much or as little attention to candidates as we want. In the same breath, I think that the internet is also crushing our already feeble attention span. We are overloaded and I'm not sure how much information we're really retaining.

I wondered what impact these tiny spurts of attention will have on a more collective human memory. Because we pay attention to much more content in much shorter intervals, does that create huge gaps in our memories? Or does this information overload provide a workable outline in our thinking? How do we fill in an outline of very vague happenings or mere news headlines with actual substanance? Do the shorter but more diverse clips and sound bites paint a complete picture of reality? Is that picture accurate?

I found some interesting facts on short attention spans from a May 2000 USA Today Magazine article entitled "TELEVISION NEWS: INFORMATION OR INFOTAINMENT? by Michael Medved:
  • Article calls the remote control the"most destructive invention of the 20th century." It went on to say a "CHANNELS magazine notes that the average adult male...changes stations every 19 minutes.
  • In the 1950s, a typical camera shot lasted 35-50 seconds; in the 1990s, it was five seconds.
  • Commercials are even more frenetic, often switching images after just one second.
  • Americans watch TV 28 hours a week, which is more time than they spend on pursuing their careers or reading (for themselves or to their children).

Further, with these facts in mind, how is a person's memory effected when they are desensitized? When people are beat over the head with violent images or corrupt politicians or the critical state of the environment, do they try to FORGET these problems or understand them more?

For example, people are aware that terrorists are crazy, but are they trying to understand why these people are that way? People know that the earth's climate is changing, but do they know the direct impact of, say, rising sea levels on their part of the world, or others? People know that we can't rely just on energy from oil forever, but do they know that if we use ethanol than world food prices will increase, as has been the case?

Basically, what I'm asking is what the heck DO we remember? Is it more? Less? Or more info with less detail (more awareness, less understanding???) How does the shortness of our attention effect what we remember 10-20-30 years down the line? I think this would be an interesting study to do. I've made a note to myself. If you're looking for a thesis, though, feel free to go for it. I look forward to you doing all the painstaking research and me just reading about it later on.

One final thing, the two articles I cited here are 17 and 7 years old. I wonder how absurdly short our attention spans are now.

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