Technology and the Loss of Memory

The latest research claims that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, particularly with the advent of modern (online) technology and the increased use of social media among young learners. Against this commonplace, however, consider Robert Southey’s warning to S. T. Coleridge in 1809:

southey_r“I know not whether your subscribers have expected too much from you, but it appears to me that you expect too much from your subscribers; and that, however accurately you may understand the diseases of the age, you have certainly mistaken its temper. In the first place, Sir, your essays are too long. ‘Brevity,’ says a contemporary journalist, ‘ is the humour of the times; a tragedy must not exceed fifteen hundred lines, a fashionable preacher must not trespass above fifteen minutes upon his congregation. We have short waistcoats and short campaigns; everything must be short—except lawsuits, speeches in Parliament, and tax-tables'” (Letters of Robert Southey: A Selection [London, 1912], 170-71).

It’s common to complain that things are “getting worse” (“worse than when?,” we should ask). However, if Southey could confidently relay complaints about 15+ minute sermons and overlong dramas in the early nineteenth-century, perhaps attention spans haven’t changed so much in our world of 140 characters after all.

Devolution of the species seems hardly to blame. We’ve only forgotten what’s past because we’ve stopped paying attention . . . and there’s nothing new about that.


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