Research indicates that in the age of the social media and smartphones, we humans have become scatterbrained and shallow-minded. The attention span of a modern day infovorous and connected human being, has deteriorated from 12 seconds in 2000 to around 8 seconds.

For comparison and for dramatic effect, we are told even a gold fish has a longer attention span at 9 seconds.

Ignoring the validity of the findings and the dubiousness of any laboratory procedures that may have been invented to measure the mind of a goldfish, the inference to be drawn is that, thanks to tweets, texts, and status updates, we are regressing towards a state of primitive and shallow thinking.

In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr makes a convincing enough case for the lamentable lapse in our ability to focus. The book was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2011, no mean feat. It expands on the themes raised in his article in the Atlantic magazine: Is Google Making Us More Stupid? This type of thesis has a long history. Jonah Lehrer in the New York Times reminded us that Socrates’ response to books was equally sceptical. He blamed books for creating forgetfulness in the soul and said that the library was ruining the mind.

Clinical psychologists and media scientists talk about how the Information Age has permanently “damaged” our Reticular Activation System (RAS) described as “the portal through which nearly all information enters the brain. (Smells are the exception; they go directly into your brain’s emotional area.)”

Does this mean online content providers and commercial websites should respond to this dumbing down by shortening advertisements, communication, or messages in order to engage readers more effectively before the click of a mouse or flick of a finger makes the interaction part of browsing history?

Not necessarily.

It is not that we have become more scatterbrained but in fact, the continuous appeals to our attention from digital media have made us better at scanning and prioritising data and making smarter “cognitive investments.”

The research confuses attention spans with this process of scanning and prioritisation. When one reads a newspaper, often the first task is to scan the headlines before prioritising what to read first and what to ignore.

There are so many interesting things available to read, listen and watch that there is stiff competition for our senses and the bar to gain one’s attention is getting higher and higher.

Contrary to the research, the Internet has increased our attention spans. If reading books is one (albeit crude) indicator of our ability to hold our attention for longer periods of time, then (at least in the more developed and broadband connected countries) more people are reading books than ever before and the contribution of connected devices such as digital tablets has a lot to do with it.

The fundamentals of digital commerce have not changed. Websites and mobile apps must be well organised, intuitively navigable, and easy to read and use. This together with compelling content or attractive merchandise makes first time users turn into loyal followers and repeat customers. These rules are still valid.

New technologies will help at least in some sectors by making the sights and sounds of a website more compelling. An online travel agency selling a holiday experience over the Internet will be able to use the advances in Virtual Reality (VR) to provide a far more compelling pitch than pictures and comments from happy customers. Head Mounted Devices (HMD) such as Rift are expensive (Rift: $599 for the HMD and $1,499 for the HMD and a souped-up PC to crunch the VR data) but Google’s cardboard idea for watching 3D on a smartphone may just be a gimmick but one that works and at a cost of next to nothing, it is way to start. Cameras such as Nokia’s OZO virtual reality camera, designed for professional VR media development, with 360 degree audio and video can transport the sights and sounds of a far away place to our living rooms.

There is a lot of hype surrounding VR but the likes of Mark Zuckerberg see VR as the “next computing platform.” (he bought Oculus, the company that makes the Rift HMD for 2 billion dollars).

Retailers and content providers can make their sites and apps more interactive to engage with browsers and data analysis can help online retailers better assess what customers may be interested in. Amazon’s highly effective “you may also be interested in” recommendations are the best-known examples of understanding online content relevance. So far the promise of Big Data has failed to deliver but it is only a matter of time when retailers, banks, and other entities will have robust data analytical tools available at affordable costs to understand customer preferences.

I, for one, feel that we not only scan and prioritise information for use but more importantly, are capable of re-engaging our attention. We can put something away and come back to it. Compelling content elongates the attention span or keeps us returning to re-focus. I often find short articles too long and difficult to finish but not a few times when finishing a very long interesting book have been disappointed that it ended rather abruptly.