Beautiful scatty minds

The piece below by me was published in the issue of Tehelka dated 30/07/05, in a slightly shorter form. It was also posted on India Uncut.

A couple of years ago, a tabloid in one of India’s metros called in a consultant to help them make the newspaper more reader-friendly. “Keep stories short,” he advised. Shorter stories, snappy paragraphs, simple sentences; suck the reader in and spit him out before he gets bored. This is the age of the short-attention span, and we see it all around us.

It’s there in the journalism. Tabloids keep their stories brief. Agency copy often consists entirely of one-sentence paragraphs: news for dummies. Magazines have found that the pages that readers turn to most are the snippetty ones, that don’t make demands on the reader’s time – like the last page of India Today, or the second- and third-last of Outlook. One of the reasons that blogs are gaining in popularity along the world, in fact, is that they cater to the short-attention span: the most popular typically have brief, pithy posts that efficiently encapsulate the subject they’re on about.

We see this also in the way we consume music. Soon, all music will be sold in the form of digital downloads, which is convenient because most people prefer to buy songs rather than albums, preferring to listen to a familiar song they like over and over rather than explore an artist’s oeuvre. It’s all a-la-carte now, and concept albums might soon be the dinosaurs of music. Television channels have also recognised this: MTV India found years ago that their maximum-TRP shows were their so-called vignettes, the two-to-three minute snippets that viewers can consume easily, like MTV Bakra and Filmi Fundas. We are hungry for the easily digestible. Ten-course meals? Sorry, no time, could you summarise please?

Television, in fact, is often blamed as a cause and not a symptom of this. Camille Paglia recently wrote: “The jump and jitter of U.S. commercial television have demonstrably reduced attention span in the young. The Web too, with its addictive unfurling of hypertext, encourages restless acceleration.” But when we talk of attention spans, are we referring to the amount of time we choose to spend on any one thing, or the amount of time we are able to spend on it. Paglia infers that it is the latter; I am not so sure.

Consider that over the last century, there has been a drastic jump in the IQs of humans, across races and gender. There has also been a tremendous increase in productivity, and advances in science and the arts – if we consider new art forms like cinema and popular music. And while every generation moans about “how good things were in our time”, every generation equally, if grudgingly, admits that kids today are smarter than they used to be. Our children will, in most cases, end up more accomplished than us. If short-attention spans are on the increase, and if that is a bad thing, why have we kept moving ahead as a species, and at such a rapid rate?

Scholars like to point to how cases of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the medical term for the disease that people with chronic short-attention-span problems have, are on the increase. But there are two reasons for this: one, reporting and diagnosis of the disease have increased, not the disease itself; and two, Americans have tended, in the last couple of decades, towards excessive pharmacology, treating even minor deviances from normal behaviour as medical conditions. If a kid doesn’t pay attention in class, it’s because kids sometimes are like that, and medication isn’t necessarily the solution. Are we going to medicate kids next because they don’t listen to their parents, or men because their eyes rove, or women because they like to shop?

In short, what I am postulating is this: the genuine medical condition of ADD is not necessarily on the rise, and that most of us who have short attentions spans have them because of a lifestyle that we have to adopt to navigate the modern world efficiently.

The world is full of more information than ever before. Sensory information, intellectual information, information about information. Close your eyes for a second and imagine that you‘ve been taken back in a time machine to 1900. Now think of all the things that you can do to entertain yourself: books you can read (if you’re part of the elite that does), movies you can watch (ha), music you can listen to (live concerts or bathroom singing?), and so on. You get the picture (or not). Today, on the other hand, we are constantly in the middle of a sensory overload.

This is not just true in the case of entertainment, but in every facet of our lives. In this information age, no matter what job we hold, we deal with far more information, from many more sources, and we need to cope with all of this in order to deal with it effectively. The only way to handle it is in a modular way: break up what we have to do into discrete slices and handle them one by one.

In a typical half-hour of leisure, for example, you could have a watch-Coldplay-video module, dash-off-an-email module, fix-up-a-meeting-with-friends-at-Barista-by-SMS module, read-a-post-or-two-at-India-Uncut module and make-coffee-in-microwave-cause-it’s-quicker module. (If you’re a man, these modules would probably be sequential, because men can’t multi-task.) You might find all these activities desirable, and the only way to fit them all in would be to have a short attention span – even if you wouldn’t consciously choose to be that way.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink”, wrote about how humans tend to do “thin-slicing”, often making decisions by focussing on a few important variables, and moving on. For example, you switch on MTV, new video is playing. Do you like the song? Your decision is quick: you don’t listen to the song carefully, but quickly, without even being aware of it, evaluate it almost instantly: the kind of melody, the tempo of the song, the voice of the singer, and many other variables you may not even be aware of. (You may not like songs in a minor key, for example, because they depress you.) Don’t like the sound of it? Switch channel. Total time taken: three seconds. Short attention span? If you insist. Impractical? No.

Practicality is the crux of the matter. In the times that we live in, with the lives that we lead, we can no longer devote the kind of time to single activities that we could have 100 years ago. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Because there is much more around us, we can take in much more in shorter bursts, and if we learn to do it well, our lives can be richer as a result. Short attentions spans, apart from those that are chronic and part of genuine ADD, are actually necessary in our times.

If it helps us navigate the chaotic world around us, it also deprives us of older pleasures. Because we don’t have all the time in the world, because we cannot fix too much of our attention on one thing, we want instant gratification. An art critic told me recently of how the manner in which she views art has changed. Earlier, she would linger in front of a painting and give her mind time to absorb all that it could be about. Now, she wants instant gratification. What is this about, in one sentence please? Ok, good. Move on.

This lack of patience on our part is great for marketers. We don’t take the time to explore new things, so we don’t acquire new tastes. We revel in the familiar, which helps music companies and film producers dish out mainstream entertainment that is based on formulae. A rehashing of the familiar demands less effort from us, and is easily digestible; thus, audiences lap it up.

We no longer have the time, and some of us might even have lost the ability, to immerse ourselves in something. Opera, classical music (Indian and Western), classical dance, ballet, all demand immersion, one reason why they are all in danger, in same cases, like opera in the UK, needing state subsidies to survive.

Of course, there is another side to this. Kids today do read Harry Potter books, after all, which are considerably more demanding than Dr Seuss. And could there be anything more demanding than some modern videogames, which are played patiently over months, and even years? It could be argued, thus, that the immersive abilities of young people today, their attention spans, haven’t changed – merely their tastes have. The jury’s out on that, and it’s young, and quite smart. And in a hurry.