Reality Skimming

A Post Attention Span World By Baron Dave Romm

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Baron Dave Romm

Baron Dave Romm

The Baron Romm: In His Own Words

I was born, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Since then I have been a fanzine publisher, masseur, radio producer, html instructor, futurist and ad hoc dilettante.

Shockwave Radio Theater was a weekly science fiction humor program which aired for nearly thirty years in Minneapolis, MN. We did original humor, played odd music, and anything else we wanted to do. I wrote/produced/acted in perhaps two dozen live stage shows. I interviewed quite a few interesting people from Dr. Demento to Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Indeed, when Ventura got to be governor, I declared that politics was a subset of science fiction humor. A degree of political awareness and futurism had always been present in my writing, and I leaped into it whole hog. I covered the 2008 Republican National Convention for KFAI-FM, and continue to talk to politicians and write political essays. And be snarky on various social media.

I live with Carole Vandal in Minneapolis on the site of the old Nicollet Baseball Park. I'm on the Condo Association and police Crime and Drug Committee. My latest project has been to document the street repairs for Nicollet Avenue. They're repaving the road for the first time since they slapped asphalt over the streetcar tracks in 1954.

I love living in the future.

A Post-Attention Span World

By Baron Dave Romm

Right now, we live in a post-attention span world. We have to multitask, and pay attention to a lot of things at the same time. If we're not liveblogging an event (observing, typing and answering feedback) we're talking on the phone while driving (or texting), holding IM conversations with many people at once, or simply have multiple windows open to flip back and forth at will.

It's not necessary, or even desirable, to remember what happened a hundred years ago. Or yesterday. We have politicians who deny ever saying things we have on video tape, and people believe them. In the latest presidential campaign, a Republican pollster proudly claimed, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers". Facts and memory didn't matter to their campaign. We have virtually everything anyone has ever written on the internet and easy ways to check on facts but most people just type the first damn thing that comes to mind. The previous Facebook comment by an obvious troll is more likely to affect your viewpoint than a reasoned book by an expert.

Finding out the truth, or at least researching the interplay of ideas, is easier today than at any time in human history, and we don't do it. Maybe people don't have the 15 seconds it would take to verify or deny a fact. Maybe people just don't want to do the typing with their fingers. Or maybe they just want to get back to Angry Birds.

When Alvin Toffler wrote "Future Shock" in 1970, he posited that people couldn't keep up with change. He was right. Now, forty years on, that change and many others have come and been superseded. We have all the information in the world, and not enough time. If no more books were written or music recorded or movies released, you couldn't, in one lifetime, experience all there is out there right now. We have to manage the moment. We have to manage flow. I called this "present shock" for "You're Riding The Shockwave", a play for Shockwave Radio Theater, in 1995, so I've been watching this phenomena grow even before the web became the backbone of existence for many.

Since the dawn of civilization, information access and flow has always been increasing, and always met with doubters.

When writing was invented, some people were against it. They were worried that direct personal communication would be compromised. They were worried that keeping track of debts and time spent on a project would limit how much one could talk someone into bending the rules. They were worried that there was was no way to tell the difference between words written by an authority (such as G_d) and some random schlub with a quill.

And they were right. All this happened.

When the printing press was invented, some people were against it. They were worried that the masses would read scripture without benefit of clergy. They were worried that people wouldn't use the memory palace technique and be able to keep a large amount of information in their head. They were worried that the democratization of knowledge would reduce the power of guilds and clan-based societies.

And they were right. All this happened.

When television was invented, some people were against it. They were worried that we would have a short attention span. They were worried that parents would use the boob tube as an electronic baby sitter. They were worried that the pablum would outweigh intellectual programs and people would just waste time. They were worried that we would have a short attention span.

And they were right. All this happened.

When the internet was invented and made easy to use by the World Wide Web., some people were against it. They were worried that the wrong people would have access to information. They were worried how easy it was to pretend to be someone you're not. They were worried about theft and fraud on a massive scale. They were worried that the speed of communication would make people stay at their computers watching the world go by.

And they were right. All this happened.

When devices using the internet got small and numerous enough and social networks connected hundreds of millions of people at once, some people were against it. They were worried that no one would have any time when they were out of touch. They were worried that conversation would take place 140 characters at a time. They were worried that people would play games on their phones while in social settings. They were worried that people would prefer to be online than meet real people.

And they were right. All this happened.

Of course, all these developments came with major advantages, and few would say that a pre-literate culture is better than our instant-gratification culture. But some would.

Change always happens, even to the amount and accessibility of knowledge. But what is different today is the rate of change.

As with all the increases in breadth and speed of knowledge available, we will adapt. Privacy may not go away, but we'll have to live with the embarrassing thing we did as a child, or the asinine post we made yesterday. Academic research may not be replaced by Twitter feeds, but we'll divide our thoughts into smaller and more easily 'liked' memes. Fact checking may not be completely replaced with bald-faced lies, but people will still vote with their sphincters and not with their heads.

Idiots predate and transcend social media. But in an online world where every post, status update or comment carries the same weight, the idiots rule. We sort of figured out how to adapt to a world with writing, then to a world with the printing press, they a world with television and, barely, a world with the internet. We really haven't come to terms with how social media should be integrated into how we run our lives.

As individuals, we haven't caught up with how technology has changed our relationship to other people. I have no doubt we will, but we're not there yet.

I'll leave you with a few observations on the same subject from wise men several Present Shocks ago:

"Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer. " -- Albert Einstein

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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