• Attention Span Deficit--a Growing Menace?

    • Posted on Nov 06, 1994


    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!
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  • What IS an American?

    • Posted on Jul 10, 1994


    Hardly a day passes that I don't think back to last year; I was living and teaching as an American in southern Germany.

    Early last July, for example, I found myself in a Bavarian Beer Garden with a couple of other Americans, hoisting steins. "Happy Birthday, America!" we toasted, raising them high.

    Since Germans don't celebrate the 4th, we gathered as a group of outsiders sharing our missing culture.

    And missing our shared culture. We were all feeling very American. That's what I learned from living a year in Germany: I was an American. Truly, deeply, American.

    Living so long apart from most Americans, I came to see just what Americans are, and how easily we're recognized outside our border:

    --We know only one language, and it's not "true" English. The Germans know very well that we don't speak real English, meaning, of course, the King's English.

    English is what the British and most educated bilingual Germans speak. Americans, however, speak American English, which baffles Germans when they're not snickering about it. We speak of hoods rather than bonnets, elevators rather than lifts, and freeways rather than motorways.

    We don't talk or write like Brits, and we pay relatively little attention to grammatical perfection. The British lecturers on the staff at the University of Regensburg thought the Americans used English a bit too loosely, though they seldom corrected us within earshot.

    However, Brits still love American literature, music, even theater. And they admire American films, though they wince at American rock 'n roll. These arts spread American English far and wide, and that's why so few Americans learn a second language. We don't really need it. (Unless we want to seem less like Americans.)

    --We remain world-class optimists. We think most everything can be fixed, and we don't wallow in despair all that often. Citizens of other cultures have always despaired. The Germans, for example, regularly see the world only through the darkest lenses.

    Where Americans think that even the meanest jerk can become kindly and helpful with a little work, Germans believe that a jerk never changes. If he does, he's probably a fraudulent jerk.  Anyone who believes differently must be naive or an American, which amounts to the same thing.                         

    Incidentally, I thought I was more or less a cynic and pessimist until I found myself arguing with a group of Germans about the state of the world. To me, the world had improved markedly in the past few years. The fall of the wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the spread of democracies--all seemed like good news.

    They hooted me down. "Now we have only nationalists killing each other," they said. "And all the former East Germans want good highways and streets, which we can't afford to build."  I left the conversation under a pall of un-American gloom.

    --We indulge in serious interests outside our work.  When I went to Germany, I took my guitar, sketching materials, and my writing to work on. Weekends would find me out sketching, or writing, or picking guitar on my apartment balcony.

    Few Germans would behave this way, nor would the French, unless they had been to America, or admired Americans. By and large, the idea of "hobbies"--meaning developing a skill or learning something just for the fun of it--seems odd to Europeans. (Brits excepted, however; they love hobbies.)

    --We don't take authority all that seriously. Whenever a group of pedestrians came to a red light with no traffic coming or going, one or two would usually walk across, paying no attention to the light. Americans all.

    Germans find this scofflawing quite shocking, since as a rule they seek authority, they want authority, they love authority. Professors in Germany insist that students and colleagues call them "Herr Doctor Professor. . ."  Americans addressed them as "Hans" or "Dieter."  We don't bother with titles if we can help it.

    --We believe in doing rather than pondering, jumping into puddles before measuring depth.  We shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. Subtleties and nuances we leave to philosophers, usually from France or Germany. Americans contributed pragmatism to philosophy, meaning--just do it.          

    --We feel extra-nervous about smoking. Never have I seen so many smokers as in Germany. Thick gray-blue air hangs everywhere in German restaurants, all winter. When I read in USA TODAY that our American health community had classified second-hand tobacco smoke as a "Class C Carcinogen"--the same as airborne asbestos--I mentioned to several Germans that they might consider establishing no-smoking sections in restaurants.

    They thought I was nuts. A typical American. Smoke away, say Europeans. It's fun, it's sophisticated, it's what we all do, and to hell with all that health stuff.  

    --We're a jolly lot. We laugh and joke far more than many Europeans. An illustration: last August a large herd of Americans was waiting to enter one of King Ludwig's castles in southern Bavaria. We waited maybe an hour as the guides took one group after another around us, our line hardly moving.

    Finally, they motioned to us to begin our slow crunch to the castle's massive oak and steel door. From out of our very American crowd came the most realistic MOOOOOOOO I had ever heard. We howled therapeutically together.  How American, the German guides must have thought. 

    So if you LOOK like an American and TALK like an American, non-Americans everywhere will take you for a guffawing, anti-authoritarian, monolingual, non-smoking optimist who leaps first and looks later.

    Go comment!
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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
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