When I was a kid, I never watched Saturday morning cartoons. My parents did not forbid TV; I just never had any particular desire to watch it. Once, my parents did put on Nickelodeon, but it did not work out. I remember being at least mildly entertained, when all of the sudden the program was interrupted by some crazy bird squawking, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!” A commercial.
It was an unknown phenomenon. “Mommy!” I cried, “Something is wrong with the movie!”
When I tell this story, I usually conclude by suggesting that I lacked the attention span to sit through commercials. This usually gets a laugh.
However, recently I got a slightly different response. “Wow,” my friend said, “if you couldn’t pay attention to TV, what could you pay attention to?” I told him I read voraciously. He was surprised. Television is associated with a short attention span, reading with dutiful concentration.
I realized that I had been conflating the ability to concentrate with the ability to tolerate interruptions. With television, the notion that I would have to watch something I didn’t want to watch was unbearable. With reading, the story never had to stop. I could just keep going.
The audience of the Antonia Can’t Watch TV Story tends to make the same mistake. This is why I’ve been able to tell the joke for so long.
The mistake reveals another basic misconception we have: We think we value a long attention span because it makes us more efficient. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true. The ability to sit through interruptions and transition seamlessly from one task to another is what we really prize — maybe it’s just as useful as the ability to read books for hours on end.
Our society is filled with a variety of stimuli, and we are expected to respond to many of them, often all at once. We consider neglecting email for even two hours irresponsible, even though checking it interrupts other work.
New information streams in unrelentingly, often in bite-sized bits, and we need to stay updated. We are surrounded constantly by objects that go beep. There are so many things we feel responsible for knowing, but to grasp everything thrown at us, we must transition easily without musing too deeply. We want to be able to focus on many things rather than a single, sustained point of interest. Contrary to popular belief, we now value a knack for transitions just as much as the ability to concentrate.
What are the repercussions of this shift? Well, for one, it means we have trained our minds to tolerate interruptions with greater ease. This is in many ways a useful and relevant skill. In kindergarten, I did not want to leave the art station and move on to story time if my artwork was unfinished. In middle school, I sometimes forgot to do my homework because I was too busy finishing a book due next week. These were problematic habits.
Today, I know how to transition with greater ease. I can multitask. I can move through a society that is set up for people who can juggle multiple tasks with finesse.
The pitfall is when we cannot stop transitioning. The urge to switch gears from writing a paper to checking email to reading articles online often becomes overpowering. I am frustrated by the number of times I stop working on my problem set in order to check Facebook — something I do less out of true desire than dread compulsion. Checking my newsfeed for the umpteenth time actually bores me.
Nonetheless, I can’t seem to stop. The need to transition can become almost like a twitch. A tick. My friend listens earnestly to a problem I’m having, but when her phone vibrates she cannot help but look. Thus, the urge to transition and multitask skews our values.
And the effects could be potentially devastating. Imagine the politician who misses an important cue from his adviser because he is updating his Twitter feed. In a society where an easily refocused attention span gets us farther than a sustained one, we may lose focus entirely. Or we may just tolerate too much bad TV.
Antonia Czinger is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.