Adam Conover finger-wagging about attention
College Humor has thrown a challenge to the four corners of the internet, daring us all to give them three minutes of our undivided attention. Not to raise awareness to some dire cause, not to make some witty or even crass joke, but just to see if we can. The video merely shows a bespoke Adam Conover addressing the camera as it gradually zooms in as if on Michael Corleone laying out an assassination plot, speaking merely on the passage of time and likely quite accurately narrating the viewers' thoughts on how we would so much like to open another tab in our browsers, glance at our phones or even to check the progress bar of the video itself to see if there will be some dramatic payoff down the line. Spoiler alert: there isn't. Watching the video all the way through should be its own reward. However, does the question this video pose truly understand the nature of attention?
There are undoubtedly some who may be able to watch the entire three minutes, withstanding Conover's nigh-constant berating of internet culture. Indeed, technological advances have shortened our attention spans, reportedly to around a mere five minutes on average. Internet culture has made us denizens of people leapfrogging from topic to topic and distraction to distraction. Yet, as the video ultimately points out, this is how we devote this non-renewable resource—time.
However, if time is something truly of value, it would stand to reason that each individual spends it as best as he or she can as he or she so chooses. A three minute video that serves no other purpose but to exist as a small monument to undivided attention may or may not be worth a viewer's time. Is this indicative of our failing attention or the assessment that our time truly could be better spent checking Twitter?
About halfway through David Fincher's (and really verbose writer Aaron Sorkin's) The Social Network, the 2010 docudrama about the founding and legal troubles of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg as depicted by Jesse Eisenberg is asked during a deposition if he has the opposing counsel's full attention during questioning. Zuckerberg, in an effort not to perjure himself, replies that he does not, that he is in fact devoting the bare minimum of his attention to the line of questioning and that the rest of it is elsewhere. In that instance, Sorkin's depiction of Zuckerberg is one of a young man who can make a determination of what his time and attention is truly worth at a given time, of one who has the capacity to multitask because such an ability is necessary in an ever-growing digital age, especially when such an ability is honed well. We all may not have the responsibilities and foibles of a billionaire steadily encroaching on the fabric of our lives, but the idea behind this particular ability is still the same.
Attention in many ways is a gift. An individual chooses where to devote one's time and interest; if the subject of that interest is no longer worthy of that attention to some degree, the individual will generally shift focus, in part or in full. This may be checking a phone in lull throughout the day or closing a video, insisting upon itself, when it serves no other purpose but merely to be. Sometimes three minutes can be worth the time and effort of full devotion, but the subject, especially in an era of multifarious distractions, had better step up to the challenge of holding it. Attention isn't just a one-way street.
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