A Poverty of Attention

In common things that round us lie

Some random truths he can impart,

— the harvest of a quiet eye.

            William Wordsworth at the end of “A Poet’s Epitaph”

Photo of iPhone, candle, and the book "The Sabbath"

I don’t need a research study to tell me that my attention span has decreased since reading more on screens and digital devices. I feel it halfway through a Zoom meeting when I start to slouch and squirm. Sitting up straight and scolding myself barely check my desire to pick up my phone and do the New York Times Mini Crossword right now. Although I stay in my seat trying to listen, even the strictest self-admonishment doesn’t prevent me from mindlessly reaching for my chocolate stash or getting distracted by the blue jay that just landed on the garden arch outside my window.

More distressing than a case of the fidgets on Zoom is that I can no longer immerse myself in a book for as long as I used to. All those long summer vacation afternoons lazing in the sun with an Agatha Christie or a juicy romance, the pre-Netflix late nights when I dismissed all thoughts of an alarm clock just to read one more chapter lie far in the past. As much as I still love to read, I no longer spend hours lost in a book.

Part of the problem may be information overload. According to a 2009 study at UC San Diego, the average person reads the equivalent of 100,000 words a day. (As a point of reference this post has 506 words.) If you feel overwhelmed by all the information that lands in your email and pops up in your social media feed every day, you’re not alone. How often do you quit an article before you finish and move on to the next thing? Sorry, TLDR. (Too long, didn’t read.) As the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon predicted back in 1977, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” 

But surely another factor in our distractibility is that we consume those 34 gigabytes of word-stuff in short bursts across multiple digital devices. When your phone is at arm’s reach and you know that at any moment a seductive alert could notify you of a text, tweet, or coveted thumbs-up on Facebook, it’s hard to find the quiet eye that Wordsworth talks about in “A Poet’s Epitaph,” the sustained observation and musing that can harvest the gifts in the real world around you and within your own mind that lead to a new idea,  a deep thought. When I have popcorn brain, it’s hard to hear the soft voice in the cave of my heart.

So, besides loosening the tether between my phone and me, another reason I decided to try a tech Sabbath was to see if stepping away from the wealth of information my devices offer could help restore my quiet eye. I want to build a palace in time that holds a wealth of attention.

How has your ability to pay attention changed in the last ten years?

Published by

Mary Camille Thomas

Mary Camille Thomas is a native of Santa Cruz, California who considers herself lucky to have returned after living internationally and on the road. She is a librarian by profession, and her poetry has appeared in The Moving Force Journal, Porter Gulch Review, and Sisters Singing. She is currently working on a novel called What Lies Buried and a collection of poems of the spirit.

10 thoughts on “A Poverty of Attention”

  1. Mary…a very informative and oh so true essay… beautifully written..i am going to curl up on my patio sofa today with the novel i have been wanting to read but have been too distracted to start…wish me luck!..hugs barbara

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  2. Hello Mary,

    I have reread your post “A Poverty of Attention” a couple of times and also shared it with Joe. We both feel that you really hit the nail on the head with your observations of information overload, especially when it is digital.

    Sunday morning used to be spent reading the Sunday New York Times while eating breakfast. We would set aside sections that we wanted to spend more time with. We still set aside the sections but rarely pick them up again to sit and read. The magazine section was one I looked forward to reading but as you said TLDR!

    I am lucky to have extra time to sit and read without worrying about completing a project that is needed immediately. However I find myself reading maybe a chapter or two and put the book down to check email, FB, Instagram, WWF games, etc. The list goes on!

    Time to put the devices away for a day.

    Thanks for your insight.

    Joan

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  3. Mary, this is so true. I often work on the NYT Spelling Bee during Zoom calls, keeping as serious of a face as I can so that if it’s obvious that I’m on my phone, people will think I’m responding to something urgent. I think the only times in recent years I’ve really gotten lost in a book is when I’m on vacation with no cell service or when I’ve been sick.

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