Millennials, Technology, and Short Attention Spans

Obviously, the way in which culture and ideas are presented have changed in recent decades.  One often hears that we are in a world of short attention spans.  Thus, people don’t read books anymore.  They read short pieces on the internet, like blogs.  People don’t listen to albums any more, they download songs instead.  This short attention span is also thought to be reflected in the use of cell phones, with people constantly multi-tasking and not being able to focus on one matter at a time.  All of this is sometimes thought to be a reflection on the undisciplined habits of mind of the younger generation.

But that’s not my view.  To begin with, it seems clear to me that the causation runs in the opposite direction.  It is not the short attention span or undisciplined minds of the young that is causing this.  Instead, it is the technology that promotes these behaviors that is the primary cause. Part of the proof for this is that older people, who presumably had more disciplined minds back in the day, often behave in much the same way as the younger people when using this new technology.

Another problem with a short attention span being the cause of this behavior comes from the world of modern TV shows, especially of the pay TV or cable variety.  The old style TV shows could be watched in any order.  They were designed that way.  One could watch All In The Family or ER in pretty much any order.  There was a reason for this: in a world with either no or limited VCRs, people could not be expected to catch every TV show in order.

Today, however, one needs to watch many of the best shows – Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad – in the correct order. They cannot be sampled like songs or blogs.  And they can realistically be watched in order, since they are available on DVRs, DVDs, and streaming services.  So what does this tell us?

First, it indicates that the so called undisciplined younger minds are able to follow a rule when there is a reason to do so.  Second, it confirms that the reason for the change in reading and viewing habits is technology.

In fact, the viewing of these TV shows actually suggests the opposite of a short attention span.  Many people – not me, I actually have a short attention span – binge watch these shows, viewing them one after another after another.  Once again, a practice that is made possible by the technology.