Short Attention Span Theater

It seems that ever since MTV popularized quick-cutting as the dominant editing paradigm for video, the attention span of the general public has been getting

It seems that ever since MTV popularized quick-cutting as the dominant editing paradigm for video, the attention span of the general public has been getting shorter. Of course, MTV was just the vanguard of what has become a relentless torrent of information and entertainment blasting from cable TV, the Web, RSS feeds, email, cell phones, and so forth. It is almost impossible to keep current, even with things that are of direct interest.

With so much to see and hear, yet with so little time, it is understandable that people feel increasingly pressured. Consequently, there is less tolerance for anything that takes time to consume. That, combined with economic pressures, has resulted in magazines running shorter articles. One editor (not from Electronic Musician), speaking about article length, said, “If it's longer than a ‘toilet read,’ it's too long.” And so was born the Short Attention Span Theater (SAST).

The swelling attendance at the SAST is not a good trend. There are a great many flowers that require tending before they will bloom. That applies especially to anything involving a point of view or a way of thinking: consideration and rumination are needed to grasp those. But reflection does not do great box office at the SAST; quick digestibility does. One result is a mighty dumbing-down, in which a thought or a fact might be mentioned, time and space permitting, but it cannot be explored. I'm not referring to the need to introduce a “hook” early in order to catch the audience's interest, but rather, a narrowing of scope and a shallowness of detail. There are still places where one can find stories with depth, but decreasingly so in the mainstream media.

Hollywood, finding SAST shows to be standing room only, has responded by focusing on eye candy, such as digital effects and nonstop action sequences, since viewers seemingly lack the concentration and the patience for plot or character development. It even could be argued that the popularity of loops in today's music, while not inherently bad, is a sign that people find it faster and less taxing to sample a bunch of existing sources and assemble them into layers and sequences than to build textures of their own from scratch.

Popular culture has always been shaped by pressures of the least common denominator, but the success of the SAST has pushed thoughtfulness further underground than ever before, leaving us informed but not enriched. In the larger picture, that diminishes humanity. The silver lining is that today's prodigious communications capabilities make available explorations that are more expansive, whether it be text- and graphics-oriented information on the Web or the ability for independent musicians to create with low-cost, accessible tools.

But one must actively seek out depth. News sites like Slashdot and boingboing display news bites that are a single paragraph in length. Getting more information is as easy as clicking on a link accompanying the paragraph, but many people never do. Their grasp of news stories comes from reading a series of single paragraphs. Legitimate sites for downloading music often take a similar approach, forcing one to make a purchasing decision that is based on auditioning a snippet less than a minute long.

I see signs that regular attendance at the SAST is leading some people toward a view of the world that is based on the broad generalizations that constitute “all the news that fits.” This path leads to a less critical view of the arts, as well as of the world in general.

I don't want to see the pace of life make us into vapid people, experiencing the world superficially. Read the long story. Make time to listen to music so that it is a focused activity, rather than just an accompaniment to some other activity. Walk out of the Short Attention Span Theater. You and the world will be richer for it.