Via booksquare: A 2-part interview with Clay Shirky, who addresses popular criticisms of digital media, such as information overload, shorter attention spans, and the end of literary reading as we know it. Shirky points out that these supposed threats are not new criticisms, and often accompany major shifts in media throughout history. He argues that television posed a far greater threat to literary reading, and in fact the Internet has reintroduced reading and writing as daily activities.

The funny thing, though, is when television came along, it became, to a degree literally unprecedented in the history of media—not just the dominant media compared to other media, but really the dominant activity in life outside of sleeping and working—that a curious bargain was struck where television still genuflected to the idea of literary reading. The notion was that there was somehow this sacred cathedral of the great books and so forth. It was just that no one actually participated in it, and so it was sort of this kind of Potemkin village. What the Internet has actually done is not decimate literary reading; that was really a done deal by 1970. What it has done, instead, is brought back reading and writing as a normal activity for a huge group of people.

The interviewer, Russ Juskalian, also asks Shirky about the claim that the Internet just gives us too much information. Shirky again points to historical precedents – in this case, the Library of Alexandria – to explain that information overload is not a new phenomenon. The Library of Alexandria

was the first example where we have concrete archaeological evidence that there was more information in one place than one human being could deal with in one lifetime, which is almost the definition of information overload. And the first deep attempt to categorize knowledge so that you could subset; the first take on the information filtering problem appears in the library of Alexandria.

Shirky reinterprets the problem of information overload as a failure of filtering. The popularity of social bookmarking sites (such as delicious) and feed readers (like Google reader) indicate the need for publicly-sourced filters – that is, “the only group that can catalog everything is everybody.”

Shirky also links the anxiety about information overload and the failure of filtering to generational difference. Older generations, more comfortable with filters that are becoming increasing obsolete (such as the card catalogue), are forced to “unlearn” these systems to learn new ones.

The question of attention span and generational difference also came up during the discussion after N. Katherine Hayles’ talk in Buffalo, where Hayles framed the issue in terms of evolving cognition. In “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” (2007), Hayles posits that “we are in the midst of a generational shift in cognitive styles” – a shift most visible in the “contrast between deep attention and hyper attention” (187). Hayles’ interest lies in exploring this shift in university classrooms, where it creates a cultural clash of sorts between the cognitive styles of educators and the hyper attention of their students.

Where Hayles suggests a concrete shift in cognitive styles from deep attention to hyper, Shirky describes the effects of digital media on both long- and short-term attention spans:

What is quite obviously happening is that the number of things that are available for short attention are increasing. But, so is the ability to consume complicated, long-form information [….] So, I think it has increased long attention span where that is what people find rewarding and increased short attention span where that’s been found rewarding.

I like the idea of an attention span that can accommodate multiple forms of information, and various modes of concentration, rather than a more linear, generational shift from deep to hyper attention. With either model, however, it’s clear that adaptation is key. While Hayles’ understanding of transformative technologies looks ahead to evolving styles of cognition and radical reconceptions of space and time, Shirky’s reflection on the history of media shifts reconnects us to not only to the ages of television and print, but to the writers and readers of the ancient world.