10. Fragmentation of Concentration

For the first 10,000 years of recorded history, mankind had two primary ways to communicate: via the spoken word or the chiseled (in stone) word.

In the last 200 years, our means of communicating have expanded quickly and widely. Telegraphs led to telephones, radios, televisions, satellites, tape recording, answering machines, voice mail, faxes, computers, the Internet, digital recording, digital cameras, streaming audio/video, email, cell phones, smartphones, texting, social networks, forums, discussion boards, iPods, podcasts, blogging, twittering and various combinations of these technologies. To name just a few!

These electronic ganglia create global awareness. But they also open pathways of perception that pull our attention in different directions.

We simultaneously seek and shun communication. All these mediums bring us food for thought, but starve us of time to think. We want connection, but crave concentration.

I once tried to count all the commercial messages I saw in one day. It became a job that kept me from my job. I quickly realized it was impossible to get an exact count but estimated that more than 9,000 signs, billboards, fliers, direct mail pieces, television commercials, radio commercials, classified ads, display ads, unsolicited faxes, unwanted emails and intrusive telemarketers were competing for my attention.

Of course, we all learn to ignore the vast majority of these messages. As we’re doing so, we eagerly purchase new technologies and new subscriptions that bombard us with even more communication.

We even expose ourselves to multiple mediums simultaneously. We read a newspaper or cruise the Internet while watching TV or listening to the radio and talking on the phone or to someone who enters the room.

A Kaiser Family Foundation report (Generation M2, Jan. 2010) found that nearly one in three (31%) 8- to 18-year-olds say that “most” of the time they are doing homework, they are also using one medium or another—watching TV, texting, listening to music, and so on.

Bandwidth Overwhelms Brainwidth

So immersed are we in this media-centric environment that bandwidth overwhelms brainwidth.

Most of us have experienced someone who takes a call in the middle of a meeting. One conversation is put on hold while another begins. Getting back to a productive point in the first conversation after such disruptions can often take several minutes.

Telephones are extremely intrusive devices. They interrupt sleep. They interrupt meals. Few people have the courage to ignore a ringing telephone, even if they use an answering machine to screen calls. In the back of your mind you think, “Someone is trying to reach me. It could be important.” Telephones make us pay more attention to people we are not with than we do to people we are with – even at the expense of our personal safety.

As more functions, such as texting, email and Internet access, have been built into cell phones, our dependence on them has increased. Our relationship with the devices has become more intense and constant. They have become indispensable. We keep them by our sides 24/7/365.

In May of 2008, a Nationwide Insurance study found that an estimated 18 percent of all drivers send or receive text messages behind the wheel. Among teens, that percentage doubles to 36 percent.[1]

Another study released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute[2] found that dialing and sending text messages on cell phones while driving increased the risk of a crash by 23 times for truck drivers. Texting forces them to take their eyes off the road. At 55 miles per hour, they travel the length of a football field without looking at the roadway.

My daughter came of age as the Internet and telecommunications exploded in the late 1990s. This created other differences in our life- and workstyles. For instance, she is poly-conversational; I am not.

Such skills represent another generational difference. I have observed her having up to seven simultaneous conversations in different chat windows on our home computer while texting two or three other people from her iPhone.

This fragmentation of attention makes concentration difficult. It can also lead to impatience. When I was younger, researching a subject required huge blocks of time. Internet habitués typically demand to find what they seek within three clicks and within seven to ten seconds or they are likely to leave a site.

To what degree does a media environment that gratifies instantly create instant expectations in life? A broader corollary question: Have the characteristics of different mediums shaped successive generations?

The era of print produced “book worms”. Television produced “couch potatoes”.

The Internet produced “Netizens”.

While cliché, these descriptions are also somewhat accurate on a broad, societal or generational level. The patient, methodical approach to learning of an earlier generation gave way to a more passive approach which itself is being replaced by a more active, involved form of learning.

Far from being couch potatoes, today’s 33 million U.S. teenagers have become active chroniclers of their generation – through texting, instant messages, blogs, Twitter, email and constantly amending their profiles on social networking sites. “In fact,” writes Amy Goldwasser on Salon.com, “they choose to write about themselves, on their own time, rather than its being a forced labor when a paper’s due in school. Regularly, often late at night, they’re generating a body of intimate written work … This is, of course, the kind of knowledge we should be encouraging. The Internet has turned teenagers into honest documentarians of their own lives – reporters embedded in their homes, their schools, their own heads.”[3]

Marketers have long segmented populations along demographic and psychographic dimensions. Media habits, preferences and exposure also differentiate people in important ways. Understanding the media preferences of a group can be as important to marketers as understanding their income, age, sex, education and beliefs.

In its 2008 News Consumption Survey,[4] the Pew Research Center observed that “audiences for most traditional news sources have steadily declined, as the number of people getting news online has surged.” Pew observed that “a sizeable minority of Americans find themselves at the intersection of these two longstanding trends.” Pew identified four market segments:

  • Integrators – get their news from both traditional sources and the Internet (23% of public in 2008)
  • Net-Newsers – point to the internet as their main news source, typically affluent and college educated (13% of public with median age of 35 in 2008)
  • Traditionalists – prefer to get their news from traditional sources and rarely go online, less educated and affluent than Net-Newsers, 60% have high school diploma or less (46% of public with median age of 52 in 2008)
  • Disengaged – are even less educated than Traditionalists and have little interest in current events (14% of the public)

To truly understand people and populations, we first need to understand how they acquire information.


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[1] “Driving While Distracted,” Nationwide Insurance Survey, May, 2008.

[2] Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, “New Data from VTTI Provides Insight into Cell Phone Use and Driving Distraction,” July 27, 2009.

[3] “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?”  By Amy Goldwasser. Salon.com, March 14, 2008.

[4] “Audience Segments in a Changing News Environment,” The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. www.people-press.org.