Many today do not have an exten­sive atten­tion span. Instead, they have “atten­tion span­gles”. Their atten­tion span is as small as a sequin, some­times glit­ter­ing with bril­liance but, in the main, only a brief reflec­tion of some­one else’s intel­lec­tu­al light.

I’m alarmed by this as nextsens­ing requires keen obser­va­tion rein­forced by extend­ed reflec­tion and think­ing. Today, what I see most peo­ple doing is glanc­ing left and right, gulp­ing down half thoughts, rins­ing those with splash­es of bewil­der­ment, and then mov­ing on to a steady diet of oth­er infor­ma­tion tid­bits. Deep data analy­sis? Crit­i­cal judge­ment about what’s true? Com­par­a­tive assess­ment of what’s sig­nif­i­cant and what’s not? Say most: “Sor­ry, no time. Got­ta check my emails and social media posts.”

This is not with­out great cost to the careers of many peo­ple, and ulti­mate­ly, to soci­ety. This thought was dri­ven home to me by a recent — and quite bril­liant — analy­sis of four books writ­ten by Jacob Weis­berg (@jacobwe) in The New York Review of Books [link]. I’ll list the four books momen­tar­i­ly, but it’s impor­tant to set the tone of Weis­berg’s insight:

Amer­i­cans spend an aver­age of five and a half hours a day with dig­i­tal media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, accord­ing to the research firm eMar­keter. Among some groups, the num­bers range much high­er. In one recent sur­vey, female stu­dents at Bay­lor Uni­ver­si­ty report­ed using their cell phones an aver­age of ten hours a day. Three quar­ters of eigh­teen-to-twen­ty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones imme­di­ate­ly upon wak­ing up in the morn­ing. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an aver­age of every 4.3 min­utes — accord­ing to a UK study. This num­ber actu­al­ly may be too low, since peo­ple tend to under­es­ti­mate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup sur­vey, 61 per­cent of peo­ple said they checked their phones less fre­quent­ly than oth­ers they knew.

This is by no means a prob­lem restrict­ed to the US and UK. Any­where I have trav­elled, I observe the same behav­iour set. The need to stay dig­i­tal­ly con­nect­ed seems to sur­pass all oth­er tasks and duties.

I even see this in the class­room with post­grad­u­ate stu­dents who often work for major glob­al cor­po­ra­tions. Just a few years ago, I would ask my stu­dents to spend 45 min­utes for an in-class assign­ment that required crit­i­cal think­ing and exten­sive peer dis­cus­sion. The same assign­ment today is often done in 20 min­utes as a check-off-this-box exer­cise — rushed through so stu­dents could return to their dig­i­tal world via their iDe­vices. While I do not have enough evi­dence to estab­lish causal­i­ty between this evo­lu­tion and smart­phones, I sure­ly do have my suspicions.

Students on iDevices

Let’s extrap­o­late this point of view. Many CEOs will send their teams a cur­rent book deemed impor­tant to the busi­ness. How many man­agers actu­al­ly read (as opposed to skim) the book? Busi­ness schools love case stud­ies, which are often dense with text and charts. How many stu­dents set­tle for the gist of the case rather than the dis­sec­tion it war­rants? Even in the world of entre­pre­neurs, how many new busi­ness­es are start­ed with­out the due men­tal dili­gence that would augur a sus­tain­able future?

For that mat­ter, Weis­berg’s well-writ­ten review of the four books runs around 4,300 words. My guess is that many skat­ed through it, which would, sad­ly, reaf­firm so much of what Weis­berg con­cludes about our dig­i­tal daze. As Weis­berg asks, “What does it mean to shift overnight from a soci­ety in which peo­ple walk down the street look­ing around to one in which peo­ple walk down the street look­ing at machines?”

The four authors he con­sid­ers each take a stab at that ques­tion. Here are the books:

  • Reclaim­ing Con­ver­sa­tion: The Pow­er of Talk in a Dig­i­tal Age by Sher­ry Turkle [link]
  • Alone Togeth­er: Why We Expect More from Tech­nol­o­gy and Less from Each Oth­er by Sher­ry Turkle [link]
  • Read­ing the Com­ments: Lik­ers, Haters, and Manip­u­la­tors at the Bot­tom of the Web by Joseph M. Rea­gle Jr. [link]
  • Hooked: How to Build Habit-Form­ing Prod­ucts by Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover [link]

Weis­berg nice­ly high­lights each of these, which makes his review so valu­able. That said, I just added these four books to my read­ing list because the link­age here to nextsens­ing is pal­pa­ble. Sher­ry Turkle (@STurkle) has two books on the list, and I know from meet­ing her recent­ly that she is strug­gling to find ways that tech­nol­o­gy can enhance the roles of peo­ple inside organ­i­sa­tions, not mar­gin­al­ize it. Her thoughts on the loss of empa­thy between peo­ple as a result of tech­nol­o­gy bear spe­cial men­tion, as empa­thy is the high­est form of sensing.

Go back to the basics for suc­cess­ful teams. They are pow­ered by earnest, open and extend­ed inter­com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which forge ever high­er lev­els of trust — and empa­thy — among team mem­bers. Too many teams today seem to only to be pow­ered by the phrase “Got­ta go!”

Not buy­ing any of this? Take a peek at the stats of the Sta­tis­tic Brain Research Insti­tute [link]. What was the aver­age atten­tion span in 2000? 12 sec­onds. In 2015? 8.25 sec­onds, about a 30 per cent drop. In anoth­er 15 years, will the aver­age atten­tion span be under five sec­onds? Oh, I for­got the kick­er: the aver­age atten­tion span of a gold­fish is 9 seconds.

Per­haps you’ve heard the com­ment by Ein­stein that “we shall require a sub­stan­tial­ly new man­ner of think­ing if mankind is to sur­vive.” While I ful­ly acknowl­edge that some today exhib­it the kind of new think­ing that Ein­stein craved, the major­i­ty will for­ev­er be hand­i­capped by atten­tion span­gles that pre­vent real think­ing at all.

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