Collective attention-span limit in societal learning
As in the case of the individual, there is a limit to the number of domains of knowledge, however pre-digested, which a group can handle conceptually as a comprehensible whole. Most groups have developed, whether consciously or unconsciously, remarkable skills at sweeping awkward factors under any convenient conceptual carpet in order to create the impression that they are in control of a situation. Presumably society could reach a condition in which more inconvenient items of knowledge are being repressed in this way than are effectively dealt with. Another aspect of the problem is that it is now recognized as misguided to elaborate information systems independently from the groups and institutions that they must serve. The man/machine interface has become such a critical factor that it is now vital to consider 'groupware' design as a necessary complement to hardware and software design. Group comprehension of complex problems requires that a user group 'reconfigure' to grasp the pattern of information available. Information systems should facilitate this process but as yet no such flexibility is envisaged. The gravity of the situation is particularly evident in the difficulty large conferences experience in organizing themselves as groups marshalling the (documentary) information at their disposal to focus on problem complexes.
The special feature of the collective attention span limit is its dynamic nature. In one sense it is perhaps to be deplored that collective attention cannot be focused long enough to give rise to effective action. But in another sense, attention shifts once the issue no longer serves the poorly understood needs for dynamism within the international community (issues are 'consumed' to fuel the dynamics). And, to the extent that the attention shift takes place in search of innovative renewal, this is to be welcomed - particularly since this brings alternative and complementary factors into focus. But, given these extremes, not enough is known to indicate when a shift is premature (in terms of action requirements) and when it is necessary (in terms of the healthy dynamics of world society). Clearly a complex world problematique demands both sustained attention to comprehend the dimension of the problem and shifts in attention to respond to complementary needs.