No, this is not some new medical finding.
The point is this. With feed readers passing hundreds or thousands of blog posts by us a day, with Twitter and Facebook updates flowing like water, with email screaming for attention every few minutes, we have no more attention to give.
We can’t pay attention to anything because we really give our full attention to very little any more. Apparently when we read a web page, we only look at around 28% of the words. I bet the same is true for reading print too.
This is why most advertising on the Internet is, on an impression basis, far less effective than advertising used to be. We know this mathematically because CPMs are so so so much lower than they used to be. It is also intuitively obvious if you are old enough to remember your interaction with advertising before the Internet. Advertising was very effective in penetrating our psyche and it no longer is.
Today it is almost impossible to get an ad message into my head. It is slightly easier, but just slightly easier in tech. But think about how hard it is for the typical consumer product ad to reach you today. Where could such a product be advertised and reach the average 18-40 year old person. They could try advertising on the Internet, but we know the click thrus are low and we know the clickers aren’t predominantly in the 18-40 demographic. There is research, which I can’t put my fingers on this second (the link is here – thanks Peter Christensen), which reflects that the people clicking on ads are older, and less Internet savvy. This should not be a shock.
The point is that we are parceling out our attention, not in bites, not in nibbles, and barely even in licks.
But the failure of non-search based internet advertising is really just the canary in the coal mine regarding our attention deficit. And while this is critically important to the future of our economic system, it is really, in the grand scheme of things, not nearly as important as what it suggests about our long term capacity for focus.
What does it mean that we have so little time and mental energy? How much time do we really think deeply about much of anything? Or perhaps we really are just using our brains more effectively today than we did twenty years ago? Could it be that we never really *needed* to focus so much and so now we are really just being more efficient and therefore effective with our time and our brain function?
That may be to some extent, but I am skeptical and a bit worried. I am not saying I have a well thought out reason to be worried, but I am. I just have this sinking feeling that we are losing something important when we pick up the pace of our activity, but reduce the depth of our focus.
Clearly the net has incredible benefits, but is this one of it’s weaknesses? And if so what are the specific repercussions? I obviously don’t have the answer here, but it seems to me that understanding the impact of this attention deficit is perhaps one of the most important philosophical questions of our time. What do you think?