Multitasking and the world brain

by December 21, 2010

Given the uncountably immense number of events happening in the world, and the almost as uncountably immense number of journalists and writers covering and commenting on events, one might expect an equally diverse range of articles and topics to appear in the press over any given period. But when statistics are run, we see that quite the opposite is true: that the media tends to devote much of its attention to a comparatively small number of topics, almost as if our collective “mind” is only capable of concentrating on one thing at a time, and must dwell on an issue in order to turn information into awareness, awareness into understanding, and, eventually, understanding into action.

A vivid example of this phenomenon happens each year when the Australian Science Media Centre asks Media Monitors to compile a report on the distribution of three months’ worth of Australian press coverage across a range of scientific research or policy topics. Rather than a uniform and relatively stable allocation of media attention to the various topics, the data shows a remarkable level of both clumpiness — one or two stories dominating the others — and rapid change from year to year. In 2005, “Bird Flu” accounted for 40% of the volume of coverage, with “Cloning” a distant second at 16%. In 2009, “Climate Change” comprised almost 50% of the volume, while “Bird/Swine Flu” dropped to 3% and “Cloning” to less than 2% of the total coverage. “Aging and Dementia” was the second-most covered topic in 2009. Here’s the pie chart for that year:

See the results from 2005 through 2008, and read more analysis here.