August 27, 2008

I'll Take Mine Dense, Please

Periodically, someone blames the interwebs for declines in attention span and amount of reading people do. I'll cop to the first. As I spend more time online, I find myself unwilling to devote the time necessary to watch the news, listen to a discussion on the radio, or watch a movie. All these things I used to do without hesitation now seem to take so bloody long.

You'll note that I didn't talk about reading. That hasn't changed...well, unless I'm in the middle of an online argument, that is. Nope, books get all the time they need, without complaint. My only complaint is that there isn't time for more of them.

So what's the difference? Why are my viewing and listening habits changing when my reading habits aren't? Information density.

I've been spoiled by tabbed browsing and information-rich websites. When I'm sitting in front of a screen or a speaker, I'm all too aware of how much more quickly I can read than someone can speak. Inflection and expression just don't add enough additional data to fill in and make the medium worthwhile.

All the extra processing power has to go somewhere. My fingers twitch to be productive in the pauses, but they'll reach for text if I let them do anything. My attention wanders down tangents and alleyways, looking to make the kinds of connections I can make online. Instead, I lose the main thread. If I do keep myself focused, I over-analyze. I get critical of the smallest points or spoil my own fun.

Luckily, there are things I can still watch, like the excellent surreality of shows like Life on Mars (highly recommended--see the British version before the US team totally screws it up, cause that's what they're doing). I can watch short videos that illustrate a point and films where close observation of human behavior is the point. For just about anything else, though, like the convention speeches, I'm reading transcripts.

And contrary to what the internet pundits say, I'm reading more than ever.


arensb said...

I'm in the same boat. I find that every time I watch TV, I'm infuriated by the time wasted on commercials, and the fact that I can't just fast-forward through the sports/Paris Hilton/human interest crap to get to the substance. With print and web sites, I can quickly find what I'm looking for.

And if you like your information dense, I'll recommend Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard's book "Coming to Life". It's a 150-page overview of developmental biology, and if there's a wasted word in any of those 150 pages, I couldn't find it.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to give that a look.

Anonymous said...

This tinyurl leads to an article I'd read awhile back "Is the internet changing our brains?"

Interesting reading.

george.w said...

Oh hell yeah, exactly. I wait a year until my favorite shows come out on DVD rather than watching commercials. And even then I watch them while doing cardio.

Thomas Edison did early experiments on information density. He found that after ten years of commercial movies, average members of the public could soak up the title sequences in half the time from when movies were introduced. In other words, their brains had gotten faster. I would love to repeat his protocols on internet-addicted videogame-generation public.

PowerPoint presentations are the worst torture. Edward Tufte has a whole shtick on their low information-density.

Cobalt said...

Thank you for this post. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the internet blamed for the Decline of Society's X by people who only use it to browse the American Idol forums.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks for the link, Minion. I'd seen the Atlantic article, which was one of a number of things that got me thinking about whether and how I'm changing. It's good to see it put in historical context.

George, I do wish people would stop thinking of slides as a way to convey any information that isn't visual. They're supposed to work like class notes--giving you something on which to hang your memories of actual information.

Cobalt, you have my solemn word, or at least as solemn as it gets, that I will never browse an AI forum. I like my music dense too, and the stuff they call music just doesn't cut it.

Mona Albano said...

Before the Internet, it was television that was blamed for the decline in attention spans, e.g. in The Plug-in Drug. But it has been years since I read it and as I recall most of the evidence was anecdotal.

However, there's been a well-known decline in sentence length in published writing that has been going on for centuries.

Mona Albano said...

I used to do my mending watching TV, but I missed a lot. Now I tend to surf the web. One fellow I know did his ironing during the pauses in televised football games. But it's best to do something that you don't have to keep glancing at. Exercise would be good for that as long as you don't have to turn up the sound too high.

george.w said...

"However, there's been a well-known decline in sentence length in published writing that has been going on for centuries."

In one of the closing paragraphs of HG Wells' War Of The Worlds there's a marvellous sentence of 66 words, typical of 112 years ago. Complex thoughts are hard to express in short sentences.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Mona, I've always had to have something to do while watching baseball, usually crossword puzzles.

I think the decline in sentence length has as much to do with styles in punctuation as anything else. If you look at the sentence to which George links, you'll see that the meaning wouldn't change if it were two, three or four sentences. Nothing would be different but the punctuation. If I were writing it, I would certainly break it at the semicolon; the connection between the two parts of the sentence wouldn't be weakened in any way.