Long-form, Attention, and Darwin

We should be able to start at A and reason our way to Z, in careful, measured steps. This long-form argument is what we’ve taken to be human reasoning at its best.

So, what if the Internet is shortening our attention spans? Suppose we can no longer get from A to B without being distracted by a catch-the-monkey ad or a link to the latest gossip? How we are ever going to think the thoughts that step us well beyond what we already know?

If we’re going to worry about losing long-form thinking, we should be quite clear about what it looks like. One of the greatest of long-form works was published in 1859. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a single magnificent argument spread out across fifteen chapters.

This passage, from the beginning of Chapter 6 of Too Big to Know, was interesting for a number of reasons. First, Weinberger introduces the phrase long-form thinking. Long-form thinking, as Weinberger describes it, is a logical progression from one assumption to the next in order to arrive at some conclusion. Weinberger suggests that this form of thinking is what humans believe is the best form of human reasoning. This certainly makes sense. Logically moving from one step to another and basing future assumptions on previous steps is the simplest and clearest logic.

The next part that I found interesting was the problem that Weinberger introduces for this section. The middle paragraph poses the question of whether any useful thinking or working can be done when there is so much seemingly useless content accessible on the Internet. This is a valid question. There are ads on nearly every website, which redirect to other websites. Even when avoiding ads, there are countless links found in places like Twitter and Facebook, places that people sometimes only mean to check. Doing research for a class can be derailed very quickly by only a few clicks. It’s an interesting question, and one that Weinberger further addresses later in the chapter.

Finally, the last paragraph brings forth the example of Darwin’s most famous works, On the Origin of Species. Weinberger states that Darwin’s work is a great example of long-form thinking. He continues by listing the contents of the book’s chapters. The summaries of the chapters quickly tell the “story” of the book, in a way that shows how complete of an argument it is. I found this part interesting because by showing one famous work broken down into its core argument, it led me to wonder if there are other works that can be broken down in such a way.

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