The attention span is dead. Maybe it never existed. There exists the possibility that it was an elitist idea, meant to preserve their power because the masses have always struggled to sustain theirs. Today, we exist in a world perpetually updating and notifying itself, so that all men are created with an equal sense of distraction.
Certainly, technology, the native tongue of everyone between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, and second language of anyone older, does nothing to reinforce sustained focus. In fact, every tool, every platform, every network, often simultaneously seeks to pull your head to the front and the back and side to side. And please share all this stimuli. Really, it’s so easy. Just click and copy and post and pass it along. We probably will start a movement and we’ll do it all without physically moving.
This week, some people hated Invisible Children because their finances seemed to grossly favor marketing. Some people rolled their eyes that they shot their YouTube video with HD cameras. Some accused them of mimicking their Christian, well-intentioned, great-grandfathers’ efforts to cause havoc and Jesus in Africa. (Both worked.) Some asserted that the 30 minute movie truncated the true story, implicated incorrect ideas about Joseph Kony’s whereabouts and the current status of fighting in Uganda. There were those who scoffed at apathetic Millenials posting anything on their Facebook that related to something other than exuberant reactions to sunshine or a Tim Tebow touchdown. Others seemingly preferred an age where Egypt, South Africa and Somalia monopolized African news stories and bristled that increased media coverage and American foreign policy attention might do Uganda some good. Everyone realized that leather thong wristbands were completely incompetent about bringing about any change other than that in the leather thong wristband market.
But back to the lack of attention span. Whether or not it actually existed, or perhaps the more normative question—ought it to exist? Ought it to be exercised? Ought it to flourish?—to which I offer a resounding yes—those cannot be shoved up in the face of Invisible Children who opted in favor of pragmatism (social media spreads incomplete ideas and not-fully-fleshed-out thoughts) over idealism (to educate any system about a given global dilemma, please read books and take classes for God’s sake! Go ask your neighborhood intellectual!)
I will not laud the impatience of this age, but I will laud the shrewd of these times. I couldn’t believe Rush Limbaugh’s classification of the Lord’s Resistance Army last year (“Obama is hunting Christians,” to which I say, “Yeah, Christians that force children to put bullets in their parents’ skulls.”) and I was equally incredulous that the first I learned of Joseph Kony was as a college student and I was stunned that Saving Darfur was sexy but nobody could see child soldiers. And yes, people did write books on this. I suppose they never made them onto the laps of the State Department officials. I suppose that People Magazine never considered sharing this news with their readers. I suppose suburban moms never got wind of any of this and that high schoolers instead just soaked up more acoustic guitar Rihanna covers on Youtube. I suppose everything was better was everyone was ignorant.
So, someone at Invisible Children realized that no one read books and that everyone checked Facebook on their Droids on pesto pizza date nights and reblogged posts on Tumblr instead of proofreading term papers and that social media had trained millenials to consider sophisticated graphic design and polished editing standard for any message that the generation might consider listening to. Someone realized that Iran blocked Twitter because of its capabilities to spread information and not because they thought it destroyed the attention span and someone realized that Arab countries had definitely shut down the internet for intermittent periods last spring because mass mobilization at one’s fingertips was possible. Someone realized that the buzz of books was latent and 60 minutes outrage was so yesterday and that hype was a four letter word, spoken like a dirty trend, but that high-brow writers at the Atlantic and Slate and the New York Times even jumped to add their voices to America’s new pastimes.
Someone at Invisible Children realized the attention span went extinct the day that unlimited texting meant more than unlimited checkouts at the library and cable news crowded the screen with a ticker, a summary, four talking heads and still felt their style was cramped. And someone actually created a campaign for a mass audience that actually spoke at them, rather than to them. In other words, someone actually thought it’d be significant if Americans were informed.
I suppose we will inevitably launch into the debate if it’s better for Americans to be wholly ignorant or hold partial grains of truth spread by “hipster” white 30 something’s (to which I say that the only alternative is “academic” and “elite” white 60 something’s because there is no way that a bunch of Ugandans are suddenly going to host the network news or write the last four best sellers—sorry America.) I will certainly argue the latter and I will do so for reasons that look like exactly what I witnessed this week.
Americans yelled at each other over blog posts and op-eds about Joseph Kony. Half of them hadn’t even heard of him last week. Americans consulted Ugandans and other Africans about the actual circumstances in their country. No one had thought of asking one of them for a regional update last week. Young people educated themselves about a cause that had nothing to do with themselves. This couldn’t even be honestly asserted in Obama’s 2008 campaign. Human rights trended better than Jeremy Lin. And Jeremy Lin had up till now stolen everyone’s gaze all of 2012.
Someone used the language of this age to communicate one of the most powerful stories of the age and high-brow America (the ones who either always told you to Follow them on Twitter and Facebook) frowned on the media. I’m so glad you guys had used your soapboxes to pass along this information before.
I suppose that the democratization of anything—whether it’s a country or information—always starts a war.
And oh the solutions! Invisible Children offered a somewhat See’s candy box of solutions—wrapped up pretty and tasting soooo good—for how YOU can actually help track down the number one wanted guy on the International Criminal Court. “Our ultimate goal is to increase pressure on those in power to bring a monster to justice. Just hang up this poster and buy this kit and reblog and retweet and share and share and share.” There’s a lot not to like, including the leather-thong wristbands. There is also plenty to like.
My generation—for instance—the one that birthed Occupy Wall Street and another viral cause “Why I Love Jesus and Hate Religion” and consistently gripes about the establishment while also staring at their sweat-shop-Nikes when asked “So, what are you going to do about this?”—actually offered an idea for how to combat a problem. And what’s critical about solutions, what makes bad solutions infinitely more helpful than the lack of them, is that an answer in and of itself inspires debate. A non-answer ends conversation. A suggestion continues it. Invisible Children is no place to actually implement their advice aside from pleading with policy makers, who are not beholden to them and their potentially backfiring ideas. But at least they can pass this policy dish around the table.
I plan to keep up my reading habit. If I leave my cell phone in my car and hide out from the internet, it’s not that hard for me to follow text on a page. In fact, I kind of like it. Here’s the thing, though: the next time I want someone to know something that could blow apart their view of the world—I’m not recommending a book. For the information I place a premium on, why would I ever let me buried?
Instead, I’m sharing a video on Youtube, I’m posting New York Times articles on my Facebook, I’m tweeting links to people who say it better than me. And when I’ve done my cyber civic duty, I’m pouring wine, slicing cheese, spreading bruschetta and inviting you over for a conversation, with maybe some solutions on the side.