Attention Without Deficits

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The challenge for all of us is to know when we are part of a true audience: when our presence is part of the presenter’s consciousness.

The Broadway actress Patti LuPone is apparently at the end of her tether. As was recently reported in the New York Times, during a performance of a play at Lincoln Center she grew frustrated with an audience member who texted continuously through an entire act.  The texter was downfront, just a few feet from the actors. Finally, at the conclusion of the last scene LuPone grabbed the offending phone from the audience member as she left the stage.

The problem of audience members otherwise engaged has been more common in recent years, notwithstanding the pleas from theater managers that audiences shut down their arsenals of personal hardware before the lights go down.

As for LuPone, the multiple Tony winner reports that she is utterly defeated by audience members staring into blue screens.  With dismay she notes that she may give up working in live theater.

Anyone who makes any kind of presentation to a group knows how daunting it can be to remain effective when an audience member visible to the presenter has decided to opt for an electronic environment over the one they are in.  Any electronic surrogate that gets more attention than the human who striving to connect is bound to produce some justifiable anger. Making a choice in favor of the device not only signals a kind of aggressive indifference to the performer, but other audience members as well. In its own small way, it’s an tacit act of sabotage against a presenter who has a right to expect at least minimal responsiveness.

To say that as a culture we have a problem with granting others our sustained attention is obvious, and not completely attributable to our growing obsession with constant connectivity.  Commanding the interest of others always requires the mastery of a very narrow path that threads its way between vast spaces of boredom and distraction.  Cayleigh Goodson aptly illustrates this lack of focus that seems to make attention deficits an emerging norm .

Research on the nature of the fickle human attention span includes a lot of cautionary conclusions.  Among them,

  1. Attention Is Intermittent Rather Than Continuous. We make a serious mistake if we believe that humans give themselves over to just one thing at a time. This only happens in times of emergency.  Otherwise, our attention to one object wonders, turning on and off faster than lights on a traffic signal.  This is why oral presentations need some tactful redundancy.
  2. Demands On Americans For Attention Are Enormous. It comes as no surprise that we have immersed ourselves in environments that flood us with messages. In the pre-electronic world it was not always this way.  Previous generations more or less chose their communication moments, especially when work was a more solitary process. Now the arrows are mostly reversed. Those moments mostly choose us: a result of the constant connectivity of e-mail, texts and other proliferating forms of social media.
  3. The Rate Of Decay For The Retention Of Content Is Very Steep.  We could not function effectively if burdened with the cognitive consequences of all that we take in.  So our brains protect our sanity by discarding most of the data that washes over us.  With its emphasis on ceaseless mayhem, news alone would drain our abilities to act on the premise that every event is potentially transformative.  So our restless information-processing requires that we ignore a lot, sometimes making us pretty useless as ostensibly engaged interlocuteurs.

From this last perspective, Patti LuPone is just another momentary intrusion in a continuous parade of incoming stimuli. But she has a right to be ticked off. The challenge for all of us is to know when we are part of a true audience.  Here’s the essential imperative we need to honor:  When our presence is part of the presenter’s consciousness, we should act on the clear obligation to be responsive to their efforts.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu