photo: People inside train photo from Hugh Han Unsplash

This blog represents an attempt to pull together contemporary issues that I feel are related to each other, but I haven’t been able to make sense of. It relates specifically to our attention span, the products, tools and resources we use to access information that meets our attention needs, what information we receive, and then who is responsible for producing those materials and resources.

I was recently listening to a programme on Radio 4 about our rapidly reducing attention spans in the global north. Numerous medical and social science academics discussed their research, explaining how our engagement with content is changing, and resultingly, changing the way we seek information and retain it.

The experts talked about behaviours I can absolutely identify with; scrolling my phone while watching a film, flicking from half-watched videos to half-watch another video on TikTok or Instagram, being hooked by adverts tailored to my tastes by an algorithm far more intelligent than I am and, in the process, losing hours of my day.

What was new to me was how broad the impact of this was – one of the guests on the show discussed how even films, which you might feel evidence the ability to concentrate for a bit longer, have much shorter shots than they used to. This means that the frame changes more regularly, and to some extent represents an ordered collection of many short videos.

This programme made me think for a long time about the visual media I engage with, and what keeps my attention. A couple of minutes on any of my social media accounts very clearly communicates what I am interested in, or what the algorithm intuits that I should be interested in; the news (but only on specific topics), clothing for women in their late thirties to early forties who still strive to be cool, ‘anti-ageing’ skin products (and other products that make us insecure), ‘sustainable’ jewellery, hill walking and travel, broadly in that order. If I was being cynical, other than news items, most of my social media consumption is trying to sell me things, and to my shame, it is successful more than I would like to admit. There is even news-related buying – including adverts for subscriptions to news outlets as well as merchandise associated (even if only visually) with the issues I appear to care about.

The above includes extensive coverage of what is happening in Palestine right now. I have been lucky enough to visit Palestine, and not only have photos that I have uploaded myself that have Palestinian locations tagged, I also followed several Palestinian content creators. My feed is full of news relating to global conflict, specifically the violence being met against the Palestinian people. Every day, at least half the content I view that is automatically lined up for me, is about Palestine. We know that social media creates echo chambers, so the content I am shown is exclusively pro-Palestinian and deeply critical of Israel’s military actions, since 1948, but more specifically, since October 7th 2023.

I began to think about the content that Palestinian creators and journalists are producing. Living in a warzone, with limited access to necessities, fighting to be heard against alleged censorship– and reflecting on what I have learnt regarding our attention spans – editing their content so that we engage with it, and ideally respond to it. Is our limited attention span going to mean that as a people document their potential demise, for the first time making every brutal element of their experience available to us, we are not going to be able to engage with it? Perhaps even more ironically, what does this mean for our engagement with the atrocities taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the violence is centred around the production of cobalt, a mineral necessary to produce the technologies that provide our attention-diminishing content.

Despite these modern specifics, the vicious outcomes of colonialism that underpin the violence described above, and other conflicts throughout the world, aren’t new. Capitalism provides us with the distractions necessary to look away from the violence, pain and loss of others – whether in Palestine, Congo or anywhere else, while also increasing our level of complicity through each advert, inane viral video and/or purchase.