When was the last time you read a John Updike novel cover to cover in a single sitting? Or even a John Updike book jacket cover to cover in a single sitting? While dour eggheads are forever forecasting apocalypse borne of our infatuation with images over text, it should be obvious by now that reading is grossly overrated. For most people, bookstores are where you get lattes and Burt’s Bees sampler kits, and yet life just keeps getting better. In previous centuries, apparently, everyone was so engrossed in Paradise Lost they never got around to inventing the Internet, organic frozen dinners, reality TV. We haven’t made the same mistake.
And yet can we really say that our diminishing attention spans don’t pose grave problems? When we lost our ability to read psychologically complex novels, only their authors had cause for alarm. When we lost our ability to sit through an episode of Seinfeld, or make it past the first quarter of the Super Bowl, it was hardly the end of the world. Some iconoclastic experts even stepped forth to reassure us that our hummingbird minds were an upgrade, not a flaw. An inability to focus meant we were multitasking. We were getting smarter, faster, more efficient.
But have you noticed that shopping has become the new reading, the thing we no longer have the patience for doing in the deep, serious, completely engaged way we once did? Except during the holiday season, how often do you spend entire afternoons immersed in traditional encyclopedias of commerce like Target and Wal-Mart, piling your cart with kitchen appliances, office supplies, sweaters, wine, DVDs? Even more specialized stores, like Sunglass Hut or Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, are beginning to seem too complicated to bother with—do you want a garlic pretzel, a Glazin’ Raisin pretzel, a pretzel dog? That’s too much information to process! You might as well just dust the latest Phillip Roth novel with a cinnamon coating and tell us to eat that.
However, there are websites that are geared toward our short-circuited attention spans. They have names like Whiskeymilitia.com, Steepandcheap.com, Chainlove.com. They sell one and only one item at a time, for a discount, until the item is gone. A site called Woot.com introduced the concept in 2004, focusing mostly on electronics, putting new items for sale up every night at midnight, creating urgency for items no one had previously shown much interest in by slashing prices and insisting the time to act was now.
At first it seemed like a harmless novelty, no different from TV channels like QVC. But QVC is aimed at aging shut-ins with an unquenchable hunger for simulated gemstones set in gold-tone bracelets. Woot.com and its ilk appeal to trendy 20-somethings, white-collar goof-offs still on the upward curve of their earning power. In 10 years, they’ll be the engines driving our economy, but already regular shopping is too boring for them. They demand simpler, more game-like shopping, the commercial equivalent of a blog post.
In the short run, the mindless impulse buys these sites inspire may be good for the economy. But the fact that such sites exist means that pallets of HP printers, Dyson vacuums and LCD flat-screens are going unpurchased at traditional retail outlets—because more and more consumers find such places too dull and complicated to endure. Eventually, Target and Best Buy and Home Depot will be forced to scale back operations, just like newspapers and record labels are doing. Next, the manufacturers who depend on these retail outlets will falter, and where will the bargains come from then? To write a snarky blog post about the New York Times’ Iraq coverage, you need the New York Times. To offer Vornado Zippi fans at $5 apiece, you need someone who was trying to sell them for $20.
Luckily, by the time our indifference to old-fashioned shopping sends us into a worldwide depression, we’ll be so incapable of sustained thought we’ll barely even notice.