“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!


Those of you who’ve been following the sorry #caredata saga will now know that for around 2000 quid in processing charges, a body of our health service would appear to have handed over hospital data on all NHS patients to the insurance industry in 2012.  The BBC provides the least alarmist overview of the situation as it stands today here.  Meanwhile, a useful Storify provides something I judge to be much closer to the truth here.  And so I am minded to think further afield – to think that, really, this is much more than a cock-up of monumental proportions.  Really, this is the result of a society, of a way of acting, seeing and believing, which has long ago gone well past its sell-by date.

I remember when I was a kid we spoke reverentially of “they”.  My father, a science teacher with a profound belief in and trust of the profession, would use the pronoun regularly.  “Is nuclear power dangerous?” I might ask.  “They say it isn’t; they work hard to do everything right; they use science and technology to build the best power plants in the world.”  “What about atom bombs?” I would question (you can tell the mushroom cloud hung heavily over my generation of helpless CND-like sympathisers).  “They used them in the Second World War because they had to.  Now they have them because the Russians have them.  I’m sure – one day – they will get rid of them eventually.”

“They” were all-knowing, all-powerful too – but also mostly benevolent.  “They” had our very best interests at heart, of that there was no doubt – and even when “they” made mistakes, they were mistakes made out of the very best of intentions.  Corruption and underbelly were not part of the gameplan – and even when they raised their ugly heads, it was not because “they” were corrupt or underbellied; no, it was rather because the battle “they” fought was painful and violent in the extreme.

“They” were never the cause of our problems.  The most “they” ever were was a group of unwilling participants in a sequence of replays of evil times gone by when good people were forced to fight fire with even more fire.

“They” were not quite us.  But, even so, “they” were on our side.

Well, #caredata, the bollocks it’s become, the Facebook-ing of the confidential GP-patient relationship (I almost wrote, quite unintentionally, the “confidential GP-patent relationship”) … all this and much more all has a clear reason for being: we trusted “they” with our lives, our democracy, our vulnerable children, our governance, our politicking, our health, our education, our welfare state and our justice system.  And “they”, who once were able to blame their own occasional forays into corruption and being underbellied on the degradingly fierce and fearsome battles against evil red empires and foul fascist regimes, can now only flail around in the self-evident reality that has led us to this Britain we see before us: a society where “they” have failed us so badly that even “they” can no longer hide it.

And how do I know this?  Well, simple really.  I use the litmus test I’ve used all my life: what would my science-teacher father say of this matter?  What answer would he give?  Not a difficult test either, in the circumstances.  All I had to do the other day was ask him precisely this: “What do you think?  Are you going to opt out of #caredata?”  “Well, after all this, I think I’ve changed my mind.  I’m going to the surgery to pick up a prescription.  I’ll hand in the form at the same time.”

To then conclude briefly, sadly and resignedly thus: “I don’t know what ‘they’ are playing at.”