• Attention Span Deficit--a Growing Menace?

    • Posted on Nov 06, 1994

    11-6-94

    Some guy named Patrick Crispen at the University of Alabama recently started a weekly class where he sends out lessons once a week to anyone who signs up via-e-mail.

    It's a seminar on how to use the Internet, and it's been both entertaining and practical.     

    And I'm hardly alone in taking it. Some 55,000 people all over the globe have been getting (at their own request) Crispen's lessons. So Crispen specifically requested, in fact pleaded, that class members avoid sending him messages at his address in Alabama.

    "My mailer can't handle it." he said at the beginning of the class, and every week since.

    So what happened? You guessed it. Crispen now receives 500 e-mail messages a day. His perfectly reasonable pleas fell on stone deaf ears, it seems.

    Another case:  Last Monday, CBS broadcast "Without Warning," a science fiction movie about aliens falling to earth in huge meteorites. CBS, knowing what happened in 1939 when Orson Welles broadcast "War of the Worlds," constantly ran warnings.

    "None of what you are seeing is actually happening," it said, probably fifty times in course of the two-hour broadcast.    They even ran messages during the movie so no one would have to seek emergency help for hyper-gullibility--a disease more and more common these days.

    And what happened again? Right--the network, affiliates, and even the state police were swamped with callers, wondering about all those aliens landing in meteorites.

    One more: according to an extensive story in last week's Courier, a fairly large number of wackos have put together enough evidence to convince themselves and a few thousand other crazies that the U.S. is about to taken over by the United Nations.

    That's not a misprint: these folks believe there's an international conspiracy to make America a lackey of that all-powerful world villain, the UN. They're arming themselves against the coming invasion of UN forces.

    So what's going on? Why is it so easy these days to fool some of the people so much of the time?

    Some trace our hypergullibility to the forthcoming milennium. Just the thought of ending a thousand years makes some folks nutsy. We're bound to see more and more hysterics on the streets until it all comes to a massive orgy of insanity on or around year's end, 1999, they say.

    This explanation makes some sense, and there are plenty of signs that millions are taking the man-made Gregorian calendar as something more than an arbitrary naming of years.

    Others would say that a small percentage of any group are acutely gullible, and as population expands, those small percentages turn into large groups of like-minded hypergullibles.      

    That's reasonable too, but not as reasonable as the shrinking attention span theory. That's the one I buy, since I see it everywhere.

    Try to get someone to pay attention to anything that isn't "entertaining," or that requires just a modicum of serious attention, and you have an almost insurmountable challenge.

    Recently I was discussing the film and novel "Slaughter-House 5" with some college juniors and seniors. Many of them preferred the film because it made them laugh, it contained a melodramatic car chase, lots of bantering dialog, and a nice happy ending, replete with literal fireworks.

    In other words, you'd have to be a zombie NOT to like it. The novel, on the other hand, offers a brooding look at the firebombing of Dresden during WWII, and takes satiricial thrusts at several cultural icons.  It stretches, it troubles, it makes readers think.

    Therefore it requires a moderately long attention span--and that's when many students began wishing they were watching the film version.  Thinking takes time and trouble, after all, and a developed attention span.

    Then there's the current national dissatifaction with the Clinton administration. As many commentators have pointed out, Clinton and his fellow Democrats actually have improved the country. The deficit has been reduced, we've averted some critical foreign policy disasters, crime rates are down, NAFTA actually works.

    Yet voters have only gotten more and more outraged. Why? Shorter attention spans. The hypergullibles catch a few nasty cracks from Limbaugh and his dittoheads and that's all they want or need to know. They don't want facts, they don't want the other side, they don't want ponder anything that requires attention.

    Instead, they want a few laughs and gibes so they can go on to the next entertainer. Channel-surfing through reality, these folks will vote this Tuesday on a variety of candidates and positions that represent nothing more than quick-shot phrases and images.

    In fact, and here's the real problem: ALL the candidates this election have learned to appeal to the shortest attention spans. Anyone who reads can't help but feel frustrated at the lack of real information anywhere on the tube. Only newspapers carry enough information to help understand positions.

    Yet few voters read anything these days. They glare at the tube, they chortle at their favorite hate radio commentators, and they vote with their minds securely made up.

    That's trouble. 

    Not only for the candidates and the issues, but for anyone whose attention span still runs to minutes instead of seconds. They want more, and they're getting less and less.

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Hot Button Issues
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • When MORE Government Makes Sense

    • Posted on Oct 16, 1994
    10-16-94

    American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said it most plainly: "The less government we have, the better--the fewer laws, and the less confided power." 

    That's old-line doctrine for conservatives: the least government automatically equals the best government.        
     
    So what's happening in Cedar Falls? Here's a town that recently voted down expanded gambling, that's composed almost entirely of white, middle-class, church-going, dear hearts and gentle people. Fiscal and political conservatives all, or at least most. 
     
    Yet here's a town that last Tuesday voted to put government into their lives even further. That is, when given a choice between private enterprise and government running their fiber optics system, they chose their own government enterprise--the Cedar Falls Utilities. 

    Have Cedar Fallsians gone--gasp--socialist?  Or have they realized that sometimes more government is better? 
     
    Since "socialist" reigns supreme as a political obscenity in most Americans' minds--thanks to a decades-long pounding by doctrinaire conservatives--I'd opt for the latter. 
    Emerson's point notwithstanding, sometimes more government works better than less government. And when is that, you ask?
     
    Whenever a monopoly makes sense, then having government run that monopoly makes even more sense.  Where duplication is expensive or unnecessary, competition also is expensive and unnecessary.        
               
    Such is the case with a fiber optics system. Since only one cable hook-up is needed, put it in private hands and you have potential for serious profit-taking, otherwise known as gouging, ripping-off, legalized piracy. It's been done in America many times before (munitions companies, oil companies, railroads) and it will be done many times again.
     
    However, government itself must be beyond reproach. Even when a monopoly makes sense, if government is corrupt or just plain incompetent, then a service or product works better in private hands. Almost any private company in Haiti would be preferable to the government these days. 
     
    So what of the Cedar Falls Utilities? From what I've seen and heard for the past thirty or so years (when I began buying electricity, gas, etc. from them) it's an impeccable organization. 
     
    They come when called, they fix stuff fast, they listen, they communicate, and they never complain about customers, no matter how surly. It's a government service as it should be, and as customers want it. Somehow, some way, Cedar Falls has been blessed with an exemplary utilities company.  
     
    If all government services ran like the Cedar Falls Utilities, we'd still not have utopia, but we'd never be tempted to turn it over to private firms. 
     
    To return to conservative philosophers, as Edmund Burke asserted, "Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants."  The popular vote for the Cedar Falls Utilities shows that voters see their utilities to be a contrivance of human wisdom.   
     
    Now, whether all those hi-tech services to be provided by a fiber optics system will change anyone's life for the better remains to be seen. 
     
    I happen to think not, since "better" has far more to do with internal attitudes and possibilities rather than having still more external choices. If anything, we have too many choices now. 

    But that's a whole different story. 
    Go comment!
    Posted in
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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.

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