I am always being infuriated by these people who insist that our brains are becoming wired for shorter and shorter attention spans. These claims, often prefaced by the words “research shows . . .”, and advanced by people who should know better (academics), are putting the cart before the horse, mistaking result for cause. If these professors who claim that they can’t even read a journal article let alone a book without being distracted by their Facebook or Twitter feed are telling the truth, they should be fired! The internet enables us to read in snippets because that’s the way it tends to present its material. Continuous reading on Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or whatever is I suppose theoretically possible, but isn’t going to happen because that’s not what people put there. I have yet to see any thoroughgoing research, with a decent sample and effective controls, which proves that our attention span is being affected by the digital world. As we can’t actually detect brain changes resulting from reading, which people have been doing on and off for millennia, how likely is it that we can really detect effects caused by digital media which we’ve been sampling for less than 20 years? Short attention span is nothing more than self indulgence, and is furthermore only a transitory phenomenon: I am sure that those professors, faced with the need to read an extended argument, are in fact perfectly capable of doing so.
Here is a less academic example of the trope. I love New Tech City, now renamed Note to Self. I love Manoush Zamorodi. I hate this segment, broadcast on 17 September last year. It is self-evidently stupid to tell us one minute that we have as a species being reading for too short a time to have any permanent changes turn up in our brains, then to deplore that changes are taking place in our brains by all this bitty reading we are allegedly being forced into by our smart phones. Manoush has announced that changes in reading are going to be a focus of her program in the future. Please let’s get straight before we start: if we are talking about science, let’s talk about it in a scientific, rigorous way: people’s personal anecdotes are perhaps fun, but they are not scientific evidence.
The headline “Tor explains why novellas are the future of publishing” (from io9 via The Passive Voice) is a classic example of cart-before-horseishness. The novella has always been a problematical format for traditional publishers: it’s too short to look worth its price, but you can’t mark the price down because it quickly becomes not worth the work of selling it. (Here’s a Guardian piece from a couple of years ago which gets this point right.) So the e-book format is perfect for the novella. Not only does an e-book of War and Peace “look” identical to an e-book of Death in Venice when you are shopping for it, price variability in the e-book market is so extensive that we customers don’t yet have any intuitive belief about what different kinds of book should cost. So Tor is absolutely right to be doing this, but they shouldn’t deceive themselves that they are doing it because of changes to their customers’ reading habits.