Are our attention spans really getting shorter or are our options plentiful enough that we don’t waste our time suffering through excess and an artist’s self-indulgence? Perhaps our willingness to put up with boring nonsense and general low quality is waning while our filter for quality is getting stronger. What some people rail against as atrophying of human attention spans at the cold mechanical hand of our smartphone overlords is potentially, just maybe a development of higher standards.
“It’s a YouTube culture, kids can’t pay attention to anything that last longer than 30 seconds,” critics of modern thought say. To which I would counter, “THEY’RE CHILDREN!” Of course kids can’t pay attention to anything longer than a few seconds. That’s always been the case, or did I miss the time when a group of 8 year olds sat and engaged in meticulous scientific observation of the diversity and notation of the evolution of mitochondria? I’d also dispute that children’s attention spans are shortening. If they shortened any more, they’d all be considered to have learning disabilities. Also Lego are as popular as ever and as someone without the patience to build would just buy the toy, not take the time to build their toy.
Some would point to the frenetic nature of modern talk shows, but I’d say that’s a result of the general dying of that genre. Of course people don’t want to watch the vapid exchange of a pre-written interview designed to promote a movie none of us will see. But if that’s a symptom of a greater loss of cognitive stick-to-itiveness, then how do you explain the rise in popularity of podcasts that feature long-form interviews?
This criticism of attention spans is often couched in a criticism of “Millennials” which I don’t think even has a good enough definition and smells suspiciously like ageism or “old person on their porch waving their cane at ‘kids these days.'” Older people get mad at younger people when younger people don’t respect the media they grew up with. I love Star Wars, but I get it when a young person doesn’t like the original movie because, well, there’s 20 minutes spent doing nothing in a trash compactor created due to budgetary constraints used to pad out a flimsy script. I don’t blame a generation gap for not being compelled by boring garbage (quite literally in the case of Star Wars).
Of course there are too frenetic Michael Bay-esque edits of nonsensical explosion porn that is ubiquitous amongst today’s film offerings, but there are also patient, psychological thrillers. “Look at the trash that’s popular, it’s all boom-kaplow dumb dumb stuff.” So? There’s a frenetic nature to life itself, particularly with the merger of technology to work life and it sometimes takes bombastic spectacle in order to simply escape the monotony of adulthood and cast out anxieties.
We have the world at our fingertips, so forgive me if I choose to watch a three second gif of a panda farting over the rape and racism of Gone With the Wind. Besides, it’s still a new paradigm, new technology. It’s possible we haven’t adjusted as a people to it yet and that pendulum will swing the other way. I’ll leave the final word to a more capable writer, Simon Rich, who has said, “Of course everyone had long attention spans when their only option was to listen to Homer recite his epic poem.”