Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Dumb and growing dumber
As my two regular readers know, I volunteer at a local museum. Over the past few months I've been spending a fair amount of time working on cataloging various documents and artifacts. The museum didn't have a formal inventory system in place until last year so there's a huge backlog of material to wade through. That backlog includes personal documents (e.g., letters) and periodicals (e.g., 100-year-old Ladies' Home Journals). I think it's fairly clear the attention span of the typical American 100 years ago was a little longer than the attention span of today's multi-tasker with his or her smart phone in hand.
Using the example of the ladies' magazines, back in 1910 a typical article in Ladies' Home Journal would run multiple pages and be printed in a fairly small font on tabloid size pages. There might be one illustration, often just a drawing rather than a photograph. The magazine enjoyed a wide circulation nation-wide and its readership quite obviously could read. As of this spring, Ladies' Home Journal exists only online (the print edition is dead). Of the surviving hard copy periodicals, a typical women's magazine has articles (and I use the word loosely) that are one page long, printed in a large font with lots of white space, and most of the pages are taken up with graphics instead of text. The readership has gone from reading at a collegiate level to perhaps 4th grade. It also apparently has the attention span of a gnat if the publishers believe more than two hundred words of text is too much. And lest anyone think that I'm picking on women, other publications are just as thin. Compare a Smithsonian Magazine or a National Geographic published this year with one that came out a few decades ago. You don't even have to go back a full century. Not long ago I found a stash of Smithsonians from the 1990s. They're not even 20 years old, but have long, interesting articles, pieces that engage the reader and make you want to keep turning the pages. They're not as in-depth or as lengthy as the articles from a few decades earlier, but they're still weightier than what we find today. Pick up a copy of the current issue of Smithsonian and what will you find? Lots of one-page pieces that tend to make Twitter look good.
If you pay any attention to the people in the publishing industry -- newspapers, magazines, whatever -- they have a tendency to blame social media. One problem with that line of reasoning: the trend started long before Al Gore had a chance to invent the Internet. Back in 1985 Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death dropped a lot of blame on television: society was beginning to view everything more and more in terms of how entertaining it was. Candidates weren't getting elected to office based on their ideas but instead on how they came across on tv. We'd become a shallow people interested only in the most superficial images of politicians and political ideas. Okay, so we can't blame Al Gore and the Internet. Instead, we'll blame Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworkyin for inventing television.
Except, of course, if I'm going to use content analysis of various texts as a guide, the dumbing down started before television became ubiquitous in American culture. The periodicals of the 1940s are much less dense and have become more visual than the periodicals at the beginning of the 20th century. Can we blame radio? Too may episodes of "Little Orphan Annie" or "The Lone Ranger" and our brains collectively began to rot? Or how about environmental factors? I watched an episode of "Cosmos" recently about lead poisoning -- the lead that used to be added to gasoline to improve engine performance -- and if I want to go searching for correlations, that's a good one. Of course, I could also find correlations, spurious or otherwise, with a lot of other things: the development of an electrical grid, the invention of processed foods like Velveeta and Miracle Whip, or the widespread popularity of Slush Puppies at 7-11. It's a mystery.