Struggling to finish this sentence? Pay attention! (Democracy depends on it)

Our attention spans are now a pitiful 47 seconds. But some stories, such as the Post Office scandal, are still capable of capturing our notice—and igniting our rage

January 12, 2024
Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

 *This column will take on average four minutes and 30 seconds to read, so you’ll need to factor in a few breaks to get through it

This is a column about… sorry, where was I? Oh yes, this is a column about attention sp… hang on a sec…

… Apologies, that was someone on WhatsApp. Bloody funny. Yes, so, attention, and how in 2024 it’s… damn, yet another email. Back in a tick. You’ll never believe that car crash reel I’ve just seen on Instagram. Big SUV driver fell asleep at the wheel. But I digress…

Twenty years ago, if the social scientists are to be believed, our average attention span was measured at two and a half minutes. And now it’s 47 seconds. 

You can read about 120 words in 47 seconds, which is very roughly how many words I’ve written so far and then… oh no, is it going to rain on my journey home tonight? Just checking…

I heard these statistics—listening to a podcast, see, rather than staring at a screen?—on the admirable Ezra Klein Show from the New York Times. He was interviewing Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has made a career out of studying the way our attention works.

Because people fool themselves about their attention span, her team used sophisticated computer logging software to come up with the rather deadly 47 second figure.

It’s certainly more than a gnat or a goldfish, but perhaps not quite what we might have hoped for after four million odd years of human evolution.

Klein described the world we now live in as an “attentionally sick society… We’ve developed a million different things to grab everybody’s attention and speed it up, from TV to TikTok.” I fear he may be right.

And then there’s news avoidance.

Still with me? Because if you’d like to check for your Amazon deliveries, that’s cool by me.

Over five years, the number of people switching off from reading or viewing certain kinds of news has doubled in the UK. Now around 40 per cent of us often or sometimes avoid the news.

Asked why, avoiders said the news was too negative, too depressing. Some thought it was untrustworthy: some felt worn out by it. A sizeable minority complained there was nothing they could do with the information. They felt disempowered.

I thought about these statistics as I marvelled at the astonishing impact of a piece of ITV drama on the Post Office Horizon scandal. Within days, the outcry had forced the government into an astonishing climbdown, exonerating hundreds of wrongly convicted postmasters at the stroke of a pen.

It’s not as if journalists hadn’t covered this story over the years: a special shout-out to Computer Weekly, the Daily Mail, the Times, the BBC and Private Eye, among others. But somehow the public had tuned out. Clicked on a funny gif, or swerved to avoid it.

Shall we take a break here so you can have, I don’t know, a biscuit?

Back in the 1920s two political philosophers, John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, engaged in a famous and prolonged debate about the relationship between news and democracy.

It being a hundred years ago, this took the form of silos between hard covers. Lippmann would publish a book. Dewey would harrumph and sit down to write a rejoinder. And the public lapped it up. Long attention spans back then, see? 

In brief—because I know you’re about to check your online banking balance—Dewey argued that consuming news was an essential precondition of a good democracy. As voters, we had a kind of civic duty to keep ourselves informed because we would duly elect the best people to represent us.

Nice idea, replied Lippmann. But he believed the general public were destined to be outsiders and that a great deal of what government does is, and has to be, done by insiders and experts. And he also believed that the press would never be up to the job of keeping voters adequately informed.

I’ve always thought of myself as part of the Dewey gang—I guess most journalists do. But I concede the theory runs into trouble if the voters have switched off or have… oh heck, I should just check on that Amazon delivery.

In truth, the sorry postmasters’ saga is a more nuanced one. The producers of the drama are the first to concede that none of it would have been possible without the dogged work of journalists stretching back nearly 15 years. They asked questions, collected data, challenged accepted narratives and quietly built a picture of a scandal.

After that, it still took some brilliant screenwriting, directing and acting to produce a version of the story that finally broke through, sparking public rage. 

So maybe Dewey wasn’t wrong after all. We can’t, like Lippmann wanted, leave it to the “experts”. Public opinion can be aroused—and it can ignite a powerful and irresistible blast which no politician could ignore.

But it requires us to tune in, not drop out. And we did with Mr Bates vs The Post Office—all four hours of it.

So, in 2024, please stop avoiding the news and concentrate. Our democracy depends on it.