Attention Sickness

April 18, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Marty Kaplan describes the symptoms and gives a name to “the very real nausea that culture (to use a kind word for it) can cause”:  Attention Sickness

First the BIG THING was ANNA NICOLE. Then it was WAR FUNDING. Then it was SANJAYA, and vote-for-the-worst sadism. Then it was CANCER, and our national debate about parental responsibility. Then it was GONZALES, and US ATTORNEY FIRINGS, and MISSING EMAILS. Then it was IMUS, and our national debate about race. Now it’s VIRGINIA TECH . . .

Confronted by these attempts to get our attention, we are pigeons, B.F. Skinner’s pigeons, our nervous and limbic systems automatically responding to the stimuli. Short of retreating to Walden, it’s virtually impossible to escape the onslaught. . . . I can’t believe that the DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – doesn’t already list a category like “attention sickness,” a box on insurance forms that shrinks can check off.

This red-alert hype of continuous intentional distraction – OMG! LOOK AT THIS! NO, THIS! NO, THIS! – makes everything seem the same. It’s next to impossible to think proportionately, to give commensurate, differential, appropriate attention to the various info-storms assaulting us.  [I]n the great Skinner box of modern media culture, our higher minds are no match for the sparklies that stimulate us, and which — not incidentally — raise the profits of business and serve the agendas of politics . . .

I just don’t know whether there’s room in my noggin, or in our collective consciousness, for all this stuff, this indiscriminate mix of crap and content. But I do know that it’s really hard to build a progressive political movement, and to keep our eyes on what’s truly important, in an attention economy in the midst of hyperinflation — in a bread-and-circuses culture that is (in Neil Postman’s prophetic phrase) amusing itself to death.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Health, Media, Medicine, Politics, Psychology Cognition, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    But we sure eat it up, don't we? It returns to that classical self-precipitating problem that really vexes me, at least: media effects man effects media. The news media has to keep up with an easily-bored public, a public that has such a short attention span…due to such a fast-paced, ever changing media that rarely hovers over one topic for long. I don't see how we can all break the cycle, but those of us that do tire of it can refuse to live off such poor intellectual nutrition and devote our attentions to more thoughtful, in-depth analysis of things that truly matter to us. As I tend to rail on about again and again, we can only achieve this by shying away from mainstream, fluff media in favor of more independent means.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Apparently too much TV for children is linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Kids who watch more tv at a younger age have more ADHD, especially boys.

    The American Pediatric Association has even issued guidleines for TV watching for children.

    Most children I've met are far more civilized than the adults I meet, so I tremble for my country when I recall that kids are too young to vote.

  3. gatomjp says:

    Our poor little brains are not equipped to handle all this negative stimuli.

    Consider the life of a human only two hundred years ago living in a small village. The only information he or she would get on a daily basis would be that which s/he personally experienced or was told by word of mouth from friends and family. If there was an accident or a murder, it would be big news and very upsetting to everyone because most likely everyone would know the person involved.

    We haven't evolved all that much in 200 years. However, the ability to deliver information from around the world has exploded. The evening news makes our lives seem like a village run amok and we subconciously react as if all of these things were happening close to home. A train wreck half a world away is tragic but is it NECESSARY information or does it just overload our senses? What am I supposed to DO with that information?

    By being bombarded every day with condensed, vivid images of pain and suffering that we would never have experienced without electronic communication, we create a constant feeling that the world is in worse shape and more dangerous than it really is.

  4. Mindy Carney says:

    Wow. I needed that. Perspective. Sometimes I lose it, only I don't realize I've lost it, I just know that I feel awful – a feeling of sadness and anguish that won't recede and today I woke up with a headache to boot. I don't even have TV, I listen to NPR in the car, yet via it and the Internet I'd managed to ingest so much misery in the last 36 hours that I felt completely defeated. Today should be a cheery day at my house – it's my nine-yr.-old's birthday – but all I've felt all day is gloom.

    Erich and Gatomjp, you clarified it for me. It's true – media shows the stories as if Anna Nicole's baby-daddy and the victims of Cho carry the same cultural weight and should be given the same status and NO WONDER we all feel like crap!

    Can't say that I'm suddenly cured of my ennui (sp?), but at least I can shake my head and loosen the images a bit, without feeling suffocating guilt.

  5. Tim Hogan says:

    The media and their transnational corporatist owners want us to feel overwhelmed and in fear, then they stick their agenda to us by inventing candidates for office and calling them "George W. Bush."

    The sheep follow while the wolves pick off the old, the young and those too weak to take care of themselves, and they call it "compasssionate conservatism."

    I don't feel like crap but, a little at sea in the ocean of bullshit, lies and cynicism which powers Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the right wing neocon Brown Shirt weblog echochambering yobbo yappers on an Oxycontin and Viagra hangover.

    Joe Hill said it best; "Don't mourn, organize!"

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