Monday, October 29, 2012


If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed a tweet or three about me deleting my Instagram today. In the spirit of this, I thought I'd publish something I recently wrote for university (I promise it's still relatively interesting and relevant!). I'm definitely not saying my opinion is the 'right' one, but this might be interesting to get you thinking about how we process all the visuals we're bombarded with every day, especially in our internet-driven culture. I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on this!
I'll be on holidays in a week from now, and I'll definitely be posting a lot more (posts with pictures) then! Have been working on a few cool things recently that I can't wait to share. 

Is the amount of images we’re confronted with in our day-to-day lives
shortening our visual attention spans?

There has been a lot of debate in recent years about whether and how the ever-increasing amount of images we as humans are confronted with daily are affecting us. Through other university tasks this year, I’ve become aware of the amount of time I consciously and subconsciously spend looking at images each day, whether on the Internet, television or day-to-day life. Thus, the question of how I process all the hundreds of visuals that I see each day emerged.  In this piece, I will explore the effects of images in different media, look at different opinions and arguments regarding the ‘image glut’ debate and compare my secondary research findings with the results of an interview I conducted myself. Many, as will later be shown in this report, have argued that the current age of visual information overload have made us ‘visually apathetic’; we essentially don’t value images as much as before because we simply see too many. Consequently, academics such as Newman (2010) argue that we have developed a ‘snack culture’ for our visual attention spans, seeing huge quantities of images but never fully taking in what we’re presented with. My interview largely corresponded with the findings of my research, however in the interview I focused on the Internet as a media for viewing images, as I was interested in finding out about age-specific opinions from someone also studying Visual Communication.

Visual attention span
It is important to firstly define what I mean by ‘visual attention span’.  Essentially, it is the amount of time we’re willing to lend an image (still or moving) before becoming distracted, disinterested or bored. It also important to distinguish that by image I do not simply mean what we see (for example looking through a window) but an image in a different context – an example of an image in day-to-day life would include a photograph, a magazine or billboard.

Information overload
A person can only take in and process a limited amount of information.  Any information an individual is presented with after this capacity has been reached is considered as ‘information overload’. (Davis & Olson, 1985) As images are fundamentally a platform for communicating information, this therefore also applies to visual information. When the amount of information we can take in through pictures is exceeded, our ability to respond is affected and decelerated. (Ahn, 2012)

In Michael Newman’s article, New Media, Young Audiences and Discourses of Attention (2010), he writes that a trend of shortened attention spans is most common in younger generations who have had significant exposure to television while growing up. He talks about the fact that shows such as Sesame Street and channels like MTV have been created around the idea that younger audiences’ attention is particularly challenging to capture and hold. Thus, even educational television programs have been counter-productive in their purpose and conditions such as ADHD have effectively been brought about by a society that was “too eager to adopt new tools of communication”. Here, Newman is in essence saying that it is our own fault for not questioning how particular technologies would affect humans before releasing them to the public. Although I can somewhat identify with this (rather extreme) statement, I find it hard to think of a practical alternative. In today’s society, the negative implications of a product or service is rarely revealed until after it has been released to the public, and even when a negative consequence can be anticipated, it can always be argued that the good that will come from it would outweigh the bad. In today’s capitalist society, the adoption of “new tools of communication” is inevitable. This article goes on to explain Newman’s theory about a ‘visual snack culture’, where TV shows are fast changing, varying in pace and ideas in order to hold the viewers’ attention. We have become obsessive ‘picture snackers’, taking in many varied ideas and stories through images, but never becoming truly satisfied (like after a meal) by an image because it’s simply too fast-paced or too much effort to look at for an extended amount of time because we’re bored or distracted so easily.  
Television, and more recently Internet screen media such as Tumblr and Instagram, disrupts our natural train of thought. Kate Moody in her book Growing Up on Television (1980), writes that “television habituates the mind to short takes, not to the continuity of thought required by reading.” This, I feel, is also relevant to surfing the web, particularly social media sites popular among my peers such as Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. My interviewee touched on the emerging culture of the ‘ever moving index’ – continuously scrolling using a mouse or mobile device (such as smart phones), only lending the time that it takes to move our finger from the top to the bottom of the screen to look at an image. Our minds are made to work in overdrive as we are confronted with thousands of different images and ideas in one sitting - my interviewee confirming that it is not uncommon for our peers to spend upwards of 4 hours per day surfing image-heavy websites.

In news media
In Sontag’s paper On Photography and Andrew Ross’ article The Ecology of Images in which he discusses Sontag’s opinions, the idea of ‘image lust’ is explored. I found Sontag’s opinions expressed in her 1977 publication On Photography, although quite extreme, still applicable in today’s society. In my interview, I posed the question of whether we’re becoming ‘visually spoilt’. Sontag claims so, writing “Industrial societies turn their citizens into image junkies: it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” My interviewee also agreed, saying, “We’re so used to having [images] given to us that we start to want it all the time” Should images be considered as pollution? In my research I found it hard to find resources that write about image use in today’s societies in a purely positive light. Andrew Ross does, however, go on to disagree with Sontag’s claims that image (and hence information) overload is depleting our sense of what is real because we start to become ‘tourists of reality’ - there is a distortion in the realisation that images we see on the news (for example) has actually happened. Ross makes the argument that, even if this were true, surely an excess of information is better than the opposite. I think it is important, however, to acknowledge that information by no means equals knowledge or wisdom; how the viewer takes in this surfeit of images and makes sense of it belongs to a separate cultural study altogether. If it could be agreed that too many images is, in fact ‘visual pollution’ causing us to become visually apathetic and shortening our image attention spans, does a ‘solution’ exist? My interviewee wholeheartedly agreed with my question of whether image curation is important in the future of the internet, mentioning that we increasingly have to ‘sift’ through more and more bad quality images in order to find those of a higher quality. The interviewee also suggested that in the future, specialty topic websites would be the destination for designers in order to find what is considered ‘good’ images, because web searches like Google Images will simply be saturated with terrible imagery.

The Effect
If, from these readings, it can be assumed that our visual (and general) attention spans are being shortened by the many images we see, it is also interesting to note how society and the media have responded to this phenomenon. Michael Ahn in his paper about the delivery of public policy in modern times, writes that “
visual communication with its vivid imagery and emotionally charged appeal is beginning to dominate our information environment”. He claims that older methods of government communication, such as public announcements, are now considered to be ‘overly objective’ in an age where visual communication is playing an ever-increasing role in getting messages across. Even though he writes about this in the context of government communication, it can be assumed that his findings also apply to other methods of communication, which are now being regarded as outdated. Ahn explains that, while textual information requires the reader to process information they read into mental images and actions, visual communication essentially allows the viewer to skip this step. Thus, it decreases the amount of effort and time needed by the observer to understand a piece of information and in turn proves to be much more economical for the party who is communicating a message visually. In Ahn’s opinion, the vividness of images has a much bigger power than text to evoke an emotional response in a person, therefore with the surge of using images to communicate, the public is increasingly making choices based on their feelings rather than logically and rationally justifying their decisions. These trends in communicating through images rather than text have already brought on a number of changes in human behaviour; our attention spans are shortened, and thus we favour short, image-based messages rather than long, text-based ones.

The ‘Say Yes’ video campaign that appeared on television in 2011, around the time that the Labor government released their plans to implement a carbon tax, support what has been revealed in this report so far.  This example I found illustrates what Ahn and other mentioned academics have written about, namely that because we’re paying less and less attention to what we see, the media and government have had to adapt the way in which they communicate in order for the public to actually absorb what they’re presented with.
Through this brief 2-minute video, it can clearly be presumed that the government has judged that the best way to communicate their message is in its most simplified and succinct form. The clip takes a very tried-and-tested approach by showing an exceptionally negative image of what ‘could happen’, but then goes on in a more positive, encouraging way. It uses all the classical features of communicating sustainability to get its message across, incorporating a friendly yet intelligent and informative voice-over. There is a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ - CEOs of the ‘large polluters’ are portrayed as greedy monopoly men and the earth is shown to literally be heating up. Colour is used very effectively to contrast pollution with clean energy. The idea of implementing a price on carbon is made to look like the most easy, obvious solution through the use of uncomplicated imagery and blatantly simple infographics. Naturally it would have been extremely well-considered to keep it as engaging as possible, in order to make sure the maximum number of people would watch and take it in. This video, although arguably over simplified and dumbed-down, is the result of the general belief that not only has our general attention span become shorter, but even our visual attention span has become ‘pickier’. Thus we subconsciously demand a super-simplified pictorial message if we are going to capture and hold information that we set our eyes on.

It is difficult to think of an alternative – something that could be done to avoid a future where our attention spans are so dumbed-down that we don’t even attempt to understand something if it isn’t visually extremely simple.  It is almost inevitable that this problem (if indeed it could be considered one) will become more contentious. This means that the future direction of visual communication and design will be an ever-changing one, one in which we will have to be eager to adapt to new ways of communicating simply. On a more positive note however, if the notion of becoming visually ‘spoilt’ is true, the increasing availability of images would naturally progress to a demand for higher quality images.

This report has confirmed and revealed a number of things to me: as I suspected, it confirmed my suspicion that the number of images we’re confronted with in our day-to-day lives are shortening our visual attention spans. It has however exposed much more; that this image overload is also shortening our general attention spans as well as changing our way of thinking and interacting. In this report I have explored what the solution, or alternative could be to this, or whether it should even be considered a ‘problem’ and not just a logical evolution of the human mind in an ever-changing, faster-moving society. Image curation, as was discussed in the interview, could be considered a solution, but the practical implications of this would most likely prove near impossible in the development of the Internet, and prove problematic because of the blurred boundaries between withholding visual information and image curation.


Ahn, M. J. 2012, ‘Effective Public Policy Delivery System in the Age of Information Overload – The Role of Imagery on Citizen Perception and Compliance of Public Policy’, The Korean Social Science Journal, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 2–16.

Carr, N. G. 2010, The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, W.W. Norton, New York

Davis, G. B., & Olson, M. H. 1985, Management information systems: Conceptual foundations, structure, and development, McGraw-Hill, New York

Helfland, J. 2001, Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York

McLuhan, M, Terence Gordon (ed.) 2003, Understanding media : the extensions of man, Gingko Press, California

Moody, K. 1980, Growing Up on Television: The TV Effect: a Report to Parents, 4th edn, Times Books, New York

Newman, M. Z.  2010, ‘New media, young audiences and discourses of attention: from Sesame Street to 'snack culture’’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 32, no. 4, pp.582 – 59.

Pettersson, R. 1993, Visual Information, 2nd edn, Educational Technology Publications, New Jersey

Ross, Andrew. 1994, The Ecology of Images, Torgovnick, M (ed.) Eloquent Obsessions: Writing Cultural Criticism, Duke University Press, Durham

Smiciklas, M. 2012, The Power of Infographics Using Pictures to Communicate and Connect with Your Audiences, Pearson Education Inc., Indianapolis

Sontag, S. 1977, On Photography, Anchor Books, California

Say Yes Australia 2011, Carbon Price - Say Yes, video recording, viewed 30 September 2012, <>

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