The public attention span has been lowered to astounding levels as history accelerated in the last couple of decades, perhaps in many cases to painfully confining 140 characters. This process is not new, in 1948 French historian Daniel Halévy wrote his Essai sur l’accélération de l’histoire or Essay on the Acceleration of History. But the process has become stronger in the last decades, as the Internet is accelerating the speed of the narrative, increasing the rhythm of society together with the progressively urgent pursuit of wealth. All of this has some positive effects: contemporary novels are much sharper, faster, and more gripping than novels used to be for centuries (though looking at Ulysses, which has no plot to speak of, it is apparent that lack of action doesn’t necessarily imply boredom or lack of artistic value). The communication between peoples is fast and unproblematic, bringing humanity closer to each other and further away from hatred and wars. But the accelerating pace and the diminishing attentiveness also has negative consequences, particularly to be found in the political discourse.
Hannah Arendt, a German American political theorist, argued that politics is employed with creating and propagating convincing narratives. As this process must include both truth and lying to be convincing, deceit in politics has always been a practice. But the Internet, the main source of the diminishing attention in the recent years, had two seemingly opposite effects on the process of public lying. It made the industry of fact-checking possible or at least made it powerful and widespread, seemingly making politicians think twice before saying something untrue. Unfortunately the same processes of technological progress made the attention of people jump between issues rapidly, rendering anything politicians say ultimately irrelevant, at least politically. People aren’t interested in things which require long-term intellectual dedication. In modern day it’s easy for politicians to change their mind to whatever is convenient at any given moment. No one remembers, at least actively, Paul Ryan’s marathon times any more (incidentally a good thing, since this particular issue is truly irrelevant). But no one seems to remember what Mitt Romney’s positions were two weeks ago either, which may actually be relevant. And so politicians say whatever they want, whenever they want, knowing very well they can change their mind at any time, no strings attached.
That’s precisely why Todd Akin persisted in trying to continue his participation in the Senate race after his appalling and cretinous remarks about ‘legitimate rape.’ He realised that if he could manage to continue his career for a month or two people would forget, and consequently would stop calling for his removal from the politics. He doesn’t even have to lay low hoping we’ll forget, he has recently been expressing his opinion that employers should be able to pay women less than men, not as stupid an opinion as his rape remarks, but a controversial one nonetheless. Irrespective of this we are watching the news, breathing in yet another sensation, forgetting, while Todd Akin leads his opposition, Sen. McCaskill, by one percentage point.
Arguably not all politicians lie or vacillate in their opinions to the same degree. There are examples of appalling lies and people who change their mind every twelve seconds, perhaps evenly spread across the political scene, as President Clinton lied to everyone, pretty much all the time, while President Bush was famously spineless in his convictions. But in the recent debate in Denver it was President Obama who was telling the voters about his usual plans and Mr. Romney who changed all his earlier plans suddenly five minutes before the debate. In the society where the attention span is so short and the speed of information and the news so rapid it is obvious that such shifts of policy are going to be present as they are a political free lunch.
Yet the only way to counter such action is to uncover the lies and the vacillation immediately, as it is the only solution which ensures that people’s attention is still there, concentrated on the discussed issue. But the President saw Mitt Romney changing his mind on stage, in Denver, and kept quiet, looking mildly confused, as if not being ready for such an event. How can he expect voters to assume Romney isn’t honest when he’s not speaking up? Better yet, his campaign published an explanation of Mitt Romney’s change of heart five days after the debate. I’m awfully sorry, but no one cared about the debate two hours after it had been concluded, much less so 5 days after. Better late that never? Perhaps, but not by far.
What once used to be keeping politicians as honest and principled as possible, a public memory, is fading away with an electronic storm of stored facts, memories and ideas, which escape from our minds into the memory of a silicon chip. And people are slipping into a forgettery, making politicians climb onto the heights of deceit and vacillation, unpunished.
This essay first appeared in The Firebrand Magazine.