• 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!
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  • Knowledge Workers: A Visionary Looks at the Next Century

    • Posted on Oct 30, 1994

    10-30-94

    Don't look now, but the 20th century recedes like sunlight on a late October day. Another few rays and it'll be gone.

    Whether a bright new day will dawn as the third millenium arrives remains a challenge to all of us. What we're undergoing, according to Peter Drucker in "The Age of Social Transformation" in the November Atlantic Monthly magazine, amounts to a transition to a new era.

    This transition from political transformations (wars, revolutions) to social transformations has been underway for almost a century now, and it's changed out lives far more than any other force. And it's all occurred peacefully, without much fuss or comment.

    Barely a century ago, Drucker points out, the workforce in western industrialized countries amounted to two groups: farmer and live-in servants.  The latter came as a real surprise to me.

    How long since anyone has seen live-in servants except on old TV series or movies? Rochester on the "Jack Benny" show, Hazel, and Arthur's butler, impeccably played by Sir John Gielgud.

    When there are servants, they're mostly comic or pathetic characters, such as the Anthony Hopkins servant in "Remains of the Day," or Sam in "French Lieutenant's Woman."

    They disappeared, most of them moving to the cities along with the farmers. They joined the huge influx of industrial workers, where they received benefits, and generally better working conditions, according to Drucker.

    Now even those industrial workers are disappearing, going the way of the farmers and servants. Fewer and fewer will form the world's workforce into the next century.

    Instead, a whole new group of workers is emerging, and this working group bears little resemblance to any workers the world has ever seen. Drucker calls them "knowledge workers," (he coined the term) and they will form the core of workers far into the future.

    What makes these workers different?  First of all, they need formal education, and lots of it. Far more than any group of workers needed in the past, since most of them will work in specialties: computer technology, media, information transfer and storage, management, and such.

    Second, they will carry their knowledge and equipment with them, so will live mobile lives. Where an industrial worker depended on a company for a workplace and machines, knowledge workers will carry their most precious asset--their knowledge--with them.

    Large numbers will learn several specialties over a lifetime, according to Drucker, and won't be tied to any company, product, or service. What these workers will know is how to learn, how to retrain themselves for various specialities in the knowledge world. They will need to be willing to spend a lifetime learning new technologies and skills.

    Third, and probably most important, will be new management techniques.  Managing people has been around since the pyramids, Drucker points out. But "Management" as a discipline is barely fifty years old, and it's a delicate combination of art and psychology.

    Moreover, managing knowledge workers (as opposed to industrial workers) presents special challenges that few managers are equipped to meet.

    Ask any university or college administrator about their work and you'll get some idea of how much we need creative and productive ideas for managing knowledge workers.

    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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