The reinvention of attention

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has written a roller coaster of an article on how the Web has affected our attention spans. It’s not the usual argument that the explosion in information has shortened our attention spans. In fact, he turns that argument on i’s head and raises a rousing cheer: Three Tweets for the Web.

He contends that the Web has actually increased our attention spans, because it allows us to follow our passions (in the same sense that you follow someone on Twitter):

Our focus on cultural bits doesn’t mean we are neglecting the larger picture. Rather, those bits are building-blocks for seeing and understanding larger trends and narratives. The typical Web user doesn’t visit a gardening blog one day and a Manolo Blahnik shoes blog the next day, and never return to either. Most activity online, or at least the kind that persists, involves continuing investments in particular long-running narratives—about gardening, art, shoes, or whatever else engages us. There’s an alluring suspense to it. What’s next? That is why the Internet captures so much of our attention.

Indeed, far from shortening our attention spans, the Web lengthens them by allowing us to follow the same story over many years’ time. If I want to know what’s new with the NBA free-agent market, the debate surrounding global warming, or the publication plans of Thomas Pynchon, Google quickly gets me to the most current information. Formerly I needed personal contacts—people who were directly involved in the action—to follow a story for years, but now I can do it quite easily.