“hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention …”

There’s a lovely article in the Guardian Media Network section this week.  The quote that caught my attention dates from 1971, and is by a person called Herbert Simon (the bold is mine):

As early as 1971 Herbert Simon observed that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”.

That Simon* could observe this in 1971 is astonishing: astonishing because it indicates that the poverty of attention he mentioned over forty years ago existed even as he drew attention to its dangers.

We haven’t heeded his warnings.

It’s an important set of observations, then.  If the norm is becoming, for at least the younger of our citizens, a displaced attention span to, at the minimum, a pair of screens at the same time (TV and mobile phone; maybe desktop and/or tablet too), it tells us our ability to prioritise and filter is declining quite sharply whilst our tendency to unfocus and fail to pursue to a proper end our goals is increasing equally dramatically.

This may mean, of course, nothing at all: as a species, addiction to this and that has been a historical constant, and the periodic highs – ever shorter as content becomes more frequently renewed – may be nothing new here.  But the fact that it might affect the best brains, the cleverest youth, the most ingenious and imaginative souls who are our species’ future, is perhaps a little more than just a little worrying.

It could be that a whole generation – even us older lot whose memories begin to fail us – is growing up in the dreadful misconception that to manage multiple screens of multiple streams of multiple screams of information is tantamount to being able to usefully multi-task in an information and knowledge economy.

It’s not true, of course.  The importance of reflection and gentle cogitation has never been greater.  Particularly when it is thought – or its lack of therein – which will save or condemn our place on the planet.

I remember seeing what happened to Blair: a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed machine of transferable thought who arrived on the political scene and turned it upside down with his sharpness and movement of mind.

What’s happened to him?  Over the years, an inevitable decline: a solidification of ideas, once fluid; a freezing of mindsets, once liquid.  I have this theory (probably other people have it, and have said it better, too …): it runs like this.  Any leader, politician or otherwise, is like a mathematician who never invents beyond the age of twenty-five: what they will think, where they will go, why they will be remembered is set by that twenty-fifth year.  Everything else is a consequence of that: just as much for the Blairs of the world we all democratically strive to inhabit as it is for stratospheric businesspeople like Apple’s Steve Jobs clearly was.

So.  Let’s see what’s happening to those who might lead more invisibly.  The best brains, the cleverest youth, the most ingenious and imaginative souls: where do they stand at the age of twenty-five?  What have the vast majority achieved by such a time?  Multi-task on two screens and manage several information streams whilst they’re monetised to hell and back by carelessly distant corporations?

Do we really build the future of our species on liking and tweeting our thoughts amidst an environment of an algorithmic orgasm which never quite manages to come together?

Are these really the giants whose shoulders we must stand on gingerly peer over in order that we might contemplate a better world for everyone?

Perpetually postponed.

Eternally awaited on.

Essentially frustrating our every instinct of natural intention.

Is that really it?


* I believe this is the right Simon; please do correct me I’m wrong!

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