Attention Historians


I’ve lost you.

Well, some of you at least. Reliable authorities suggest that many of the people who click on a link, even many of the people who share it, don’t, in fact, read it (see or … but who am I kidding: you won’t read them either…).

We’re not even talking about not finishing it. (The number of times I’ve clicked through to someone’s blog on my commute, only to have to cram my phone back into my pocket as I scramble off the train!)

No: many readers don’t make it past the first line.

Depressing, perhaps, but also interesting. Well, when I say “interesting”, what I really mean is like a red rag to a bull for the doom and gloom brigade. You know who I’m talking about:

‘Mobile phones have ruined our ability to have a conversation’
‘Tablets are turning our children into robots’
‘Facebook is the sole cause of war, poverty, and human unhappiness’

It’s easy to look at the fact that people scan text on the internet, or just read headlines, or just the first few lines and say to yourself ‘You know what this means. It means that we – the internet-using human race in general – we have sacrificed our attention spans to technology’ ( – yet apparently we can stomach a whole book on the topic?).

Now I’m not saying that the idea of increased distractibility and decreased attentiveness is impossible. But what I do think we might want to do is put our historian hats on and think about this critically. (To do so would probably count as part of a new wave of psycho/neuro/behavioralist history which promises a great deal, and – to my mind – has yet to deliver).

So: where is the evidence that our attention spans have really shortened? What problems are there with that evidence, and what might an alternative history of ‘paying attention’, one that is not written in the monotonous language of decline, look like?

For instance: the evidence of decreased attention span recently is easiest to find in… books and articles on decreased attention span! People make money from this panic. They are not disinterested observers.

And it turns out that Virginia Heffernan of the NYT has already beaten me to it (, wondering why it is that when it comes to attention, we have been so willing to assume that every individual has a fixed ‘span’ (which can be stretched, or curtailed, perhaps, but still exists as a kind of objective measure). (Someone please write the history of the idea of the attention span ).

As Heffernan points out:

In other eras, distractibility wasn’t considered shameful. It was regularly praised, in fact — as autonomy, exuberance and versatility. To be brooding, morbid, obsessive or easily mesmerized was thought much worse than being distractible. In Moby-Dick, Starbuck tries to distract Ahab from his monomania with evocations of family life in Nantucket. Under the spell of “a cruel, remorseless emperor” — his own single-mindedness — Ahab stays his fatal course. Ahab’s doom comes from his undistractibility.

Rather than bemoaning how social media has twittled away our ability to think in bursts longer than 140 characters, shouldn’t we explore different contexts where focus and ennui have been practiced? What cultural norms governed these different contexts? How did individuals navigate them?

Let me offer only the most obvious example, as I sit in a library distracting myself from the work I will soon return to (I tell myself this is productive distraction).

The rise of the library is surely a case-study in the deliberate cultivation of incredible feats of focus, as people learned to sit and concentrate on books. The price of that effort is evident in rules and regulations about noise, food, and appropriate bodily behaviours.

Or think of bourgeois theatre.

By 1900, no longer does the audience interject, whoop and holler. Brecht, as Heffernan points out in her article, was very concerned about the docility of audiences in his time. This silence and submission has a history. And what that history tells us is that attentiveness itself is political. It’s policemen turning their backs on the mayor of New York in protest, but it’s also the difference in codes of proper behavior for audiences at academic talks between my (silent) Anglophone colleagues and my (rather chatty) French ones.

Do the Japanese really lack attention for loving the haiku? Does Wagner really prove the Germans have greater staying power? Do you really think our ancestors would have had the patience and determination to put together an Ikea bed?

The idea seems ridiculous when put bluntly.

The point, however, is a deeper one: historians alone are armed with the tools and sources to wrest a topic like this back from the sensationalists and the neuro-mancers.

Now: back to work!


9 thoughts on “Attention Historians

  1. “If attention does not necessarily equal perceptiveness, and to see others in fact requires inattentiveness rather than deep absorption, why do we invoke anxious totems of value such as sustained attention and feel so strongly that our artworks must nourish it?”


  2. Though the bell signalling a new e-mail kept distracting me . . .
    And I think about the recommended strategy for getting through one’s Ph.D. exams reading list: read the first chapter, the TOC, and the last chapter of each book.

    It seems to me that the worry about shorter attention spans is connected to two deeper worries: that we’re not spending enough time interacting directly with people, and yet that paradoxically we’re trying to stay in touch with people all of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it would make rather a neat research project to look at how people learned to use libraries, and learned to be attentive (or not). I wonder if anyone has done it?

    I suspect this is not (simply) a story of ‘modern’ learning radiating from the centre. For instance, I was interested to see from that most reliable of academic introductions, Wikipedia, that Norwich City Library was founded (1608) before the British Library (1612)!


  4. Yes, perspective is one way of putting it. The other is that the scientific literature just doesn’t have the empirical data to back up their claims about long-term trends. Historians may not have quantitative data or nice clean data to answer this lack, but they can provide qualitative evidence that questions some of the scientific claims.


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