What our culture wants

Grazing my way through the New York Times a few weekends ago, I came across “The Attention Span Myth,” a short piece by Virginia Heffernan, a staff writer at the Times’s Magazine.  Heffernan’s suggestion was that there is no such thing as an attention span – “a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain.”  Instead, she concluded, what really engages people or renders them distractible is merely the thematic content of their media consumption — e.g., whether it’s a good story or a bad story.

What struck me about this was not just that it was absurdly wrong, but also that Heffernan is the Magazine’s media commentator (her column is titled “The Medium”).  As such, she should be aware that media-effects researchers routinely distinguish media content’s thematic elements (e.g., sex, violence) from the “formal” elements (e.g., frequency of cuts, or frequency of intense stimuli) that are believed to make the strongest impact on our attentional capacity.  She also should be aware that attentional capacity and other executive functions are, to neuroscientists, non-controversial and measurable phenomena that, among other things, strongly determine the average person’s ability to function in the real world – notwithstanding the fact that some gifted and successful artists and athletes and other creative types may be, like children, highly impulsive.

I am all for reasoned argument and respect for one’s opponents, but when I read Heffernan’s blithe dismissal of “attention span,” or, for example, Steven Johnson’s arguments about how TV really is better for us than we think, or John Tierney’s enthusiasm (discussed in my last post) about adding video-game instant gratifications to our everyday activties, I am always reminded of a spooky fact:

Public arguments over the effects of media are conducted via … the media.

It’s like the situation in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the two astronauts have to diagnose a potentially fatal flaw in their onboard HAL 9000 computer, but can do so only with the help of … their onboard HAL 9000 computer.

But wait!  Isn’t “media” a neutral entity, indifferent to the content that flows through it?

How could it be?  Think of all the people whose short-term interests would be threatened by any curtailment of the media’s expansion and power!  People such as the media platform inventors, the content producers and distributors, the content aggregators and resellers, the advertisers and consultants, the folks in the marketing department, the business owners who need to advertise, the writers and actors and artists and directors and technicians, and last but not least, us couch-bound media consumers.  Yes, this list includes nearly everyone in the population.  The media industry is a beast made of us.  Any attempt to shrink it would have immediate negative economic consequences.

And even if these negative short-term consequences seemed worth enduring, for the sake of a better society in the longer term, a large proportion of this industry probably would not see its interests as being bettered.  That proportion, that “core” – the networks, the studios, the Apples and Googles and Facebooks and Electronic Artses and Disneys – is rich, and connected, and powerful, and accustomed to getting its way.

Yes, but – some might say – look at all the content out there that (like this very post you are reading) directly questions this continued expansion of media!  Look at what Nicholas Carr and Lee Siegel have written.  Look at New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s recent pieces on the negative effects of gadgetry on attention span.  Look even at Heffernan, who in her “Attention Span Myth” piece posed not as a purveyor of conventional wisdom but as a contrarian – a debunker of what she called “the dominant model.”  How can our media be unfree in any meaningful sense if the idea that modern media shortens attention span is “the dominant model?”

Well, here’s how it can be unfree in a meaningful sense: by being free only nominally, that is, unmeaningfully, for anything that potentially threatens its interests.  Sift through the astronomical diversity of our media content – in our hundreds of cable channels, thousands of video games, millions of songs, hundreds of millions of websites – and try to find anything that represents a practical step towards the curtailing of the media’s existence or expansion.  Sure, there are plenty of complaints about media’s effects.  But where are the policy consequences?  We have long had some mild, and many would say grossly inadequate, restrictions on thematic, sex-and-violence elements of media content.  But when have we even come close to restricting media content based on its attention-impacting formal elements?

It isn’t just that we lack serious restrictions on media.  We lack the capacity to place serious restrictions.  And this should hardly be a surprise, given our core-cultural faith in personal and commercial freedom; given the special modern interpretation and status of the Constitution’s First Amendment; and given the leeway moneyed interests such as the media industry have to influence our legislatures.

There was a feature in Nature last year which mentioned the perennial inability of Senators to initiate (at NIH or CDC) a relatively inexpensive research program on media effects on children — a program that had seemed necessary given the mysterious lack of desire by developmental psychologists to do such research.  But it isn’t clear to me what practical outlet that research could have had anyway.  What are the institutions that could take scientific findings about the effects of media on attentional capacity – effects to which some people might be far more susceptible than others – and turn those findings into policies that significantly restrict media?  The FCC?  Give me a break.

The money sits almost entirely on one side of this debate, and that includes the advertisers’ money that helps pay most professional journalists’ salaries.  Those advertisers presumably wouldn’t like it if the magazine or website where they place ads were to go beyond an occasional blowing-off of steam about the adverse effects of media technology and actually endanger the medium through which they boost their sales.  They would, I think, prefer to see an accumulation of arguments to the effect that media technology is not really so bad, and anyway culture is always evolving, and change is always a bit painful at first, but everything always works out in the end because evolution is always good.

So when I read stuff like this now, I am tempted to see it less as reasoned argument and more as something like paid propaganda.  It reminds me of the guff that used to come from the old tobacco lobby.  It makes me wonder whether the person who wrote it did so not because she had thought about it deeply but because she was merely following, like any properly-wired mammal, the system of incentives that her environment presents to her.

It makes me think of that character in the Matrix, who, as he enjoys his simulated but tasty steak, tells Agent Smith his price for selling out his refusenik friends and their underdog campaign for cognitive freedom:

I want to be rich.  Someone important.

Okay, so this is a bit of a rant by now, and I probably seem both paranoid and disrespectful to the Heffernans and Tierneys and Johnsons and other stop-worrying-and-love-technology writers.  But with only a little searching I find that I am not alone in my suspicions.  Check out what media critic and author Douglas Rushkoff wrote a few years ago, after being asked “What is today’s most important unreported story?”

America’s Descent Into Computer-Aided Unconsciousness And Consumer Fascism

… Web sites and other media are designed to be “sticky,” using any means necessary to maintain our attention. Computers are programmed to stimulate Pavlovian responses from human beings, using techniques like one-to-one marketing, collaborative filtering, and hypnotic information architecture.

Computers then record our responses in order to refine these techniques, automatically and without the need for human intervention….  It amounts to a closed feedback loop between us and our computers, where – after their initial programming – the machines take the active role and human beings behave automatically….  They are encouraged to evolve, while we are encouraged to devolve into impulsive, thoughtless passivity.

Those who stand a chance of resisting – people who actually think – are rewarded handsomely for their compliance, and awarded favorable media representations such as “geek chic.”  These monikers are reserved for intelligent people who surrender their neural power to the enhancement of the machine…  Those who refuse to suspend active thought are labeled communist, liberal, or simply “unfashionably pessimistic” ….

Ultimately, if such a story were actually reported, it would have to dress itself in irony, or appear as the result of an abstract intellectual exercise, so as not to alert too much attention.

[my italics+bold]