Presently Absent: Champions of Progress

The average human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. If you frequent the internet while procrastinating at work, perhaps you already knew that. Or not. Either way, I’m sharing for posterity: According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average human attention span was 12 seconds in the year 2000. By 2013, it had dropped to 8 seconds. I’m not sure how we’re doing in 2014, but that’s of little importance considering I’ve most likely already lost you.  

No? Neat.


I like to imagine the highly-sophisticated experiment that landed this statistic on my #digitalmarketing Twitter feed involved a staring contest between a clipboard-wielding labcoat and a tangerine-scaled opponent in a plastic-baggie fishtank. This is definitely not the way it went down, but a girl can make light of the disturbing. And digress, apparently.

Before I get all doom and gloom on the Goldfish Effect, I think we ought to give the human race the benefit of the doubt. It’s not our fault we’ve rewired our brains. All day, every day, we are bombarded with a relentless stream of nothing and everything, all at once. This is especially true if your day job requires WiFi connection, and/or you’re a stay-at-home information superhighway addict and/or you suffer from nomophobia, the fear of being without a mobile phone. Show me a goldfish with a smartphone and capacity for reason and we’ll see who gets the last laugh.


You know what I’m talking about; no one in the possession of a connected device is ever wholly spared the persistent time vacuum of bullshit: Buy this, eat that, waste your time here, crush this candy thing there, ignore your present company and kill a few minutes on social media, ‘follow’ this more successful person with expensive clothes and an affinity for capturing healthier-than-thou breakfasts in precisely the right filter to convince you the mashed avocados are indeed greener on the other side of your Instagram feed, etc. These are the attention hams — the focus vultures, if you will — I’ve deemed the scapegoats for our perpetually divided attention. I also blame our glorification of the term “multitasking” as a desirable skill, which is really just a euphemism for busying our minds doing a bunch of things at once and no one thing particularly well. It’s not you, it’s science (and your short-term memory). Exceptions to the rule are robots. Perhaps even literally. It’s nearly 2015, afterall.

It’s difficult enough to lend your full attention to a single browser tab, let alone an email to an old friend (I remain partial to more antiquated snail mail correspondence, but I didn’t start typing to mount my humblebragging high horse). We’re building a more connected world, which indeed can be a very good thing; the world wide web opens new windows (and Apples?) of opportunity for exploration, discovery, transparency, knowledge sharing, scientific and social progress and more. But not always. And at what cost?

In a most deceptively disruptive way, we’ve moved our society, careers, social lives, finances, navigation tools and [insert something modern and supposedly critical to our daily existence here] to a digital platform — one that affords limitless instant, albeit fleeting gratification for the small price of perpetual distraction.

I won’t pretend I know the solution. I’m merely taking a break from my ever-expanding to-do list of internet dependent, livelihood-sustaining tasks to consider the hard-hitting questions:

Is The Goldfish Effect a telltale byproduct of The Information Age?

Can and should our brains adapt to better absorb a relentless stream of information?

What world are we building for future generations, and will said future generations be self-important d-bags?

Do we lose more than we gain with technological progress?

Is my mother any less fit to advise me in life because she thinks her flip phone is an iPhone?

Does ubiquitous “connectivity” benefit or endanger the here and now?

And finally,

How long can a goldfish survive in a plastic bag?

Hell if I know. Besides, as evidenced by my browser history, I’ve more pressing matters to attend to than finding an elegant way to wrap up this post.

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