Does The Internet Shorten Attention Spans?



Sorry, what was the question again?

Oh, the internet. Hang on, let me Google it.

Last week there were several hand-wringing articles by Will Self and others about the digital age creating shorter attention spends that are damaging our ability to concentrate. The authors worried that immense literary novels – and there are such things, ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker last year and tipped in at 849 pages – are suffering.

I find this argument as spurious and ridiculous as the Victorians worrying about the effect of shortening skirts. In 1973 the Booker was won by JG Farrell’s slender ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’. ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald, at 132 pages, won in 1979. Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ and Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ were only slightly longer. So length is no indication of quality.

If anything, it’s the low-end trashier books which publishers expect to give value for money with extra pages. Dan Brown’s staggeringly awful ‘Inferno’ is over 600 pages long.

Films are getting longer. As for TV, the average box set takes much longer to view than a Dickensian novel, and some are just as good. So no, the internet does not shorten attention spans. What I think it does do is change the way we digest fiction. On an e-reader it’s quite easy to read several books at once, and why not? Immersion in long fiction is hard today, but not because of the internet – it’s because our time is subdivided into tiny parts by the structures of our lives. Simply put, our free time is no such thing. We rarely have the time to be as bored as people born in eras before TV, radio and cinema.

The readers of previous generations enjoyed some wonderful books and put up with an awful lot of very bad ones. If there’s a problem now it’s that delivery on so many formats means we can just choose the best of the best, and the rest barely get seen. Middle-ground fiction now has a smaller audience.

The good news is that the internet allows us to discover authors we might never have once dreamed of reading. There are too few books in translation available, but that’s changing. And if we graze now instead of gorging, well, tapas makes a pleasant chance from a heavy plated meal – and can be just as nourishing.


9 comments on “Does The Internet Shorten Attention Spans?”

  1. Wayne says:

    Yes it does. Lets face it I didn’t even have the attention span to read this post just the title before posting a reply….. 😉

    Oh and to back it up who can be bothered to sit through a whole Movie without playing with their phone or other mobile divice these days? Probable has nothing to do with this post my reply, does it?

    BTW Really am looking forward to reading some of your Kindle short story collections that are out of print.

  2. admin says:

    Wait until you see the new covers!

  3. Jenny Campbell says:

    Wait until you see the new covers.. urgh not usually a good sign.. I still can’t get over what they have done to Jodi Picoult’s ones..

  4. snowy says:

    It is possible to construct an argument that it all started with the ‘Zapper’ or Television Remote Control.

    Once a person no longer had to endure to onerous task of rising from their seat and treking up to 7 or 8 feet to see what was on the other channel*, everything changed. Up till then an evening’s entertainment was planned in advance.

    [One could only find out what was available by reference to either a daily newspaper, or not one but two completely separate weekly magazines, each only listing half the available programmes.]

    And slowly after the remote control it all changed, at the first hint of boredom; click, click, click. Children have absorbed the behavior from their parents that if something is a bit dull even for a minute, the solution is not to ride it out, but to switch away to something else.

    It all seems to start there; has there been an innovation in TV that isn’t linked to the use of the remote?

    *[Not strictly true, most people had small children cluttering up the house and would send one of those to change channel, but they would get a bit moody if you kept asking them move about ‘all the time’.]

  5. Cid says:

    Perhaps not exactly what Will Self meant, but if I read a story in a newspaper I find it easy to concentrate, yet if I read a story of the same length on that newspaper’s website I find myself skimming it. I hate myself for it but I find I have a shorter attention span when reading on a computer, because in the back of my mind there’s always the nagging idea that there may be something more interesting to read on one of the millions of web pages I’ve not looked at yet. There rarely is, of course.

    The internet is one of the principal reasons the only way I’ll stop buying a daily paper is because they’ve stopped printing them.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    The light on the screen bothers my eye, I find, and I wonder if that affects people even when they’re not as aware of it as I am just now.
    Snowy you will be pleased to know that the wonderful CD and table cards arrived today (30 June) and I have just run the CD which is replete with colour and B&W images, much singing and dancing, and Queen Victoria being amused in a number of ways. Thank you so much for this; it was well worth the wait and the table cards – perfectly dry! – would have been ideal for the Betjeman gathering.

  7. snowy says:


    I’d was begining to think I’d have been better off giving the package to the lovely Sarah Outen and asking her to deliver it by hand. [She is heading your way, last seen at Aiktak Island, Alaska and moving south.]

    [There is no need to suffer glare, I still read this blog as white text on a black background.]

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t know whether it would help, Snowy. It’s my paralyzed side and I think it’s an inability to adjust properly. I have to limit the amount of time I use computers and tv in order to avoid pain, but the upside is that it doesn’t affect my reading books. I’ll bet it would affect reading electronic books, though.
    Teachers are concerned about the lack of ability to concentrate for any length of time, but they’ve been saying it since Sesame Street started and possibly since radio made an appearance.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and it looks as if giving the package to MS Outen would have been a fair race. I hadn’t heard about her trek, but it seems everyone has to do it. Palin went north to south and around the equator and is now doing Brazil and several others have provided tv series of varying levels of interest.

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