The Tyranny of the Immediate in Short Attention Span Theatre

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Over the weekend Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of the humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University, had an important post on how we process the never-ending influx of information fixated on Now:

The more time people spend on social media, the more prone they become to recency bias, and especially the form of recency bias that inclines us to believe that what has just happened is far more important that it really is.

Everyone everywhere is prone to recency bias, but I think we are more prone to it than any society in history because our media are so attentive to the events of Now, and we are so immersed in those media that anything that happened more than a week or so ago is consigned to the dustbin of history. The big social-media companies function as what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia, and the result is that we lack temporal bandwidth. Unless we work hard to cultivate that temporal bandwidth, we won’t have the “personal density” to resist the amnesia-producing forces that make us think that whatever happens today is more important than anything that has ever happened.

Increasingly, I think, the people who rule our society understand how all this works, and no one understands it better than Donald Trump. Trump knows perfectly well that his audience’s attachment to the immediate is so great that he can make virtually any scandal disappear from the public mind with three or four tweets. And the very journalists who most want to hold Trump accountable are also the most vulnerable to his changing of the subject. He’s got them on a string. They cannot resist the tweets du jour.

This tyranny of the immediate has two major effects on our political judgment. First, it disables us from making accurate assessments of threats and dangers. We may, for instance, think that we live in a time of uniquely poisonous social mistrust and open hostility, but that’s only because we have forgotten what the Sixties and early Seventies were like.

Second, it inclines us to forget that the greatest of social changes tend to happen, as Edward Gibbon put it, insensibly. Even when they seem sudden, it is almost always case that the suddenness is merely a very long gradual transformation finally bearing fruit. There’s a famous moment in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when one character asks another how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” the man replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” But the “suddenly” happened because he was previously insensible to the “gradually.” Likewise, events are always appearing to us with extreme suddenness — but only because we are so amnesiac that we have failed to discern the long slow gradual forces that made this moment inevitable.

And so we float on, boats with the current, borne forward ceaselessly into an ever-surprising future.

You can read the whole thing here, where he applies this principle to John McCain and Donald Trump.

See also Samuel James’s complementary new piece, Death by Minutia. Here is an excerpt:

Social media is not the first technology to weaponize trivia. Neil Postman eviscerated television’s effect on Americans’ ability to process information in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and his critique has been both applied to social media and cited as an example of how every generation has their Luddites. But social media, especially Twitter, is different than television in important ways. It is more mobile, more personal, and its neural rewards are more alluring. Postman warned that TV makes us empty-headed and passive. But at its worst, Twitter can make us empty-headed and passive while we think we are actually being smart and courageous. Trivialities are dangerous to the degree that we cannot actually tell them for what they are. In our age, it’s not the silly vacuity of TV that gets pride of place in our cultural imagination, but the silly vacuity of hashtags and screenshots. Television is just television. Twitter is resistance.

Confusing minutia for meaning is a surefire path toward mental and emotional burnout at best, and an existential transformation into the very things we despise at worst. Fortunately, there are off-ramps. The best way to fight this burnout is to unplug and log off, redirecting your best energies away from the ephemera of online controversies and toward analog life. Because of the neurological boost social media offers, being conscious of its effects is the first, hardest, and most important step toward resisting them. These intentional acts are likely to arouse a sense of condemnation, either from ourselves or others, for not being as “in the know” as we once felt compelled to be. But this is precisely the social media illusion: that being “in the know” about petty, trivial, insignificant trends and conversations is no different than being in the know about anything else. All it takes is a few days away from the black hole of Twitter controversies to recalibrate the mind and realize just how small and unreal they are.

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