We live in an age where we are on constant information overload. All the important news of the day can be obtained on one page, in a few sentences rather than a few pages. The latest neuroscience shows that not only is how we get information changing, but how our brains process information is changing as well. We expect to obtain knowledge quickly and we have a short attention span. People are far more likely to read a tweet or watch/listen to a podcast than to read an entire article. Research shows that readers bounce around pages and scan for important words when reading articles. Even highly trained and well-read academics do not feel as though they have time to read entire articles.
This has several implications for the future of geographic research and knowledge. First, the distracted, internet-heavy style of learning that leads to a short attention span for knowledge acquisition is available mostly to rich countries. Almost all people have some internet access in the United States, while around half do in Russia and far fewer in Africa. Second, research can reach a mass audience without rigorous fact checking and sourcing of its information. Many sites that host academic articles have ways of putting the most read, viewed, and shared articles first. This makes it easier to get to the most relevant information, but it discourages individual research and leads to groupthink. Finally, in a positive way, articles are becoming more interactive. As shown in Figure 2, Science articles feature links to supporting materials and podcasts with the authors in addition to the text article. The journal Progress in Human Geography’s website offers pop-up abstracts available by hovering the mouse clicker over the link. Also, many journals and authors post tweets about their work, reducing a complex research article down to 140 characters.
The acknowledgement of humans’ limited attention span and capacity is not a new one in spatial geography. A general cartographer’s rule has always been to keep legend items from between 5-7, since this is what science suggests is the most information a brain can retain. Part of the fear might just be, however, that many geography readers won’t get to the map at all when processing information. It might be summed up in a tweet or easier to read article. Articles will be increasingly shorter and offer more boxes and graphics to show the key points. Based on the suggestions of this article, we will likely be seeing more and more simplified maps that cut out all extraneous information that disrupts the flow of readers’ “ADD” minds.
Schuurman, N. (2013). Tweet me your talk: Geographical learning and knowledge production 2.0. The Professional Geographer, 65(3), 369-377.