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The Future Of 'Short Attention Span Theater'

Oct 26, 2012
Originally published on October 26, 2012 4:36 pm

We've been looking at how technology has totally changed what it means to watch television or a movie. One of the biggest changes has been in demand — people want a baseball game — on their smartphone, wherever they are, right now. They want to pull up a video and stream it — on their laptop or phone, immediately, with no wait.

So, where is all this going? If the younger generation is demanding this much from their screens today, what will things look like in a few decades? Jessica Helfand, author of Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture, tells NPR's David Greene that it's a worrying trend.

"The impatience with which people have come to expect everything to be delivered to them is a terrifying prospect," she says.

The Yale graphic design critic calls the phenomenon "short attention span theater" and says it's amplified by the digital gadgets most of us carry these days. Her students are constantly engaged in multimedia multitasking — reading, working on essays and checking Facebook every 10 minutes.

"You just have to wonder to what degree are they actually assimilating anything?" she says. "And my big concern is how deep anybody can go if they're spread so thin, if they skim everything."

This skimming generation is going to be producing the media we consume, which Helfand calls both an opportunity and a challenge. "A friend of mine actually referred to this recently as, this is the culture of narrative deprivation," she says.

"These are kids who don't watch an entire episode of Saturday Night Live, they just go and watch the bits they want to see. They wait till a series comes out on Netflix, and they watch it all at once instead of the classic episodic nature." Moreover, she adds, they prefer to watch things alone, on their own laptops — which also affects the viewing experience.

Helfand says she's trying to channel that impatience, that desire to control the consumption of media, into creating a better visual, more compelling experience on the screen — an experience tailored to shorter attention spans.

"So, for example, my students are making two-minute, sort of Twitter-length videos," she says. "So you're still compartmentalized within that very short trajectory of information, but then the challenge is, can you go deep emotionally, can you go deep visually ... but still deliver something that's dramatically interesting?"

A lot of energy and effort go into discussing the ways content will be delivered in the future — WiFi on a plane or a proposal by German researchers to deliver morning news and weather to your shaving mirror. Helfand says it's hard to speculate about what that content will look like.

"The unfortunate thing, I think, is that so much then gets expended on thinking about the box or the screen," she says, "instead of the content, and the ideas and the innovation that we bring to it, creatively and intellectually."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this Friday we take a final look at How We Watch What We Watch. We've been discussing how technology has transformed what it means to watch television - from innovations that began decades ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: RCA announces a major improvement in video cassette recording. Introducing SelectaVision 400. Set it today and for the next seven days the 400 remembers the shows you want recorded. It'll turn itself on and off up to four times.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let RCA turn your television into SelectaVision.

INSKEEP: Up to four times. We've come a long ways since then. And one of the biggest changes is that we are now an on-demand audience. You can catch a baseball game on your phone while walking to work.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You can show co-workers a clip from a late-night show they missed with barely a second's delay.

INSKEEP: And even then, the impatience people have with the speed of technology has been fodder for one comedian, Louis C.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN")

LOUIS C.K.: Now we live in an amazing, amazing world, and it's wasted on the (bleep) generation of just spoiled idiots that don't care. Because this is what people are like now. They got their phone. They're like, uh, it won't - give it a second. It's going to space. Can you give it a second to get back from space? (Unintelligible)...

INSKEEP: That was Louis C.K. a few years ago on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." And his commentary brings up this question: Where's all this going?

MONTAGNE: If we demand this much today, what will things look like in 10 or 20 years? Jessica Helfand is the author of "Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture." MORNING EDITION's David Greene spoke to her about this.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So Jessica, does the comedian Louis C.K. have a point there?

JESSICA HELFAND: You know, David, I think he does have a point. The impatience with which people have come to expect everything delivered to them is kind of a terrifying prospect. The short attention span theater I think has been a long time coming but it's particularly amplified through the degree to which we carry gadgets with us everywhere we go.

GREENE: Short attention span theater - why do you find that terrifying?

HELFAND: You know, it's an interesting question. I asked my students a few days ago how they felt about the degree to which they skim everything. So for example, a student will be doing an essay, reading, working and checking Facebook six times in an hour. So you just sort have to wonder to what degree are they actually assimilating anything. And my big concern, I think, is how deep anybody can go if they're spread so thin, if they skim everything. It's like intellectual tapas, right, where like everything is just sort of at this level of input that can't possibly be deep.

GREENE: Maybe that's why tapas restaurants are so popular in this modern generation.

HELFAND: Maybe.

GREENE: Well, I wonder - you mention, I mean you have undergraduate students and they're checking Facebook six times in an hour, but this generation, these are the people who are going to be producing what we consume and what we watch...

HELFAND: Well, that's exactly it, and I think they are(ph) both producers and consumers, and I think that's actually the opportunity and the challenge, right? So if - you know, a friend of mine actually referred to this recently as this is a culture of narrative deprivation. These are kids who don't watch an entire episode of "Saturday Night Live." They just go and watch the bits they want to see. They wait until a series comes out on Netflix and they watch it all at once instead of in the classic episodic nature with which we typically would consume television. So that control is really exciting to them. But to just control the consumption is kind of a wasted opportunity. What I'm trying to do and think about is how we can kind of maneuver that thinking into creating better things, more compelling visual experiences on the screen that are very much constructed and conceived of within the dimensions of that short attention span. So for example, my students are making two-minute, sort to Twitter-length videos. So you're still sort of compartmentalized within that very short trajectory of information. But then the challenge is, can you go deep emotionally, can you go deep visually, can you make it theatrically something more compelling but it still delivers something that's dramatically interesting and specific to its timeframe?

GREENE: Let me push back a little bit, because you talk about narrative deprivation, and I think about some of the shows that younger people are watching today. I mean, you know, "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights," I mean these programs - you're using, you know, different types of technology. It's not sitting in your living room watching them necessarily. But these are still, you know, shows that have plots each episode. They have a beginning and end.

HELFAND: They do, but I think the patterns of consumption for this generation for watching them is different. There is no cliffhanger anymore. Right? There is no Friday afternoon hook from the soap opera that you would wait Monday to see and the ratings would go up.

GREENE: Because you have control over when you want to watch it.

HELFAND: Because you do. And I raised this issue of narrative deprivation to some of my students recently and they said, well, no, we love stories, we love storylines, we love films. We just want to wait and watch the entire series of "Downton Abbey" when it comes out on Netflix. We're not going to wait. So that's one thing. And another thing I would add to that is that they tend to watch things on their own laptops. But I do wonder how watching something alone on a screen will change their ability to understand and, of course, produce their own work in a way that's so different than previous generations - maybe better, but certainly different.

GREENE: What does all of this mean, would you say, for 10 or 20 years from now for me as a television viewer, as a movie viewer? I mean how will my experience be different if this new generation is creating what I'm watching?

HELFAND: It's hard to imagine what will happen in the future, but I have to say in my personal experience so much effort and attention gets allocated to discussing the hardware that delivers, the delivery mechanisms, for our mobile life. So the fact that you can get Wi-Fi on a plane, the fact that - I recently saw a video that someone had done, I think, in Germany, proposing the idea that you might be able to get your morning weather and news on your mirror. So you'd be shaving or brushing your teeth and you could see it (unintelligible) come up. So the seamlessness and the transparency with which we don't have to exert much effort at all and that push technology comes to us, what's hard for any of us to speculate is what the hardware will do. And I just - the unfortunate thing, I think, is that so much then gets expended on thinking about the box or the screen or the physical dimensions of how we experience a story instead of the content and the ideas and the innovation that we bring to it creatively and intellectually.

GREENE: Jessica Helfand, really interesting conversation. Thanks for joining us.

HELFAND: Thank you for having me, David.

GREENE: She teaches at the Yale University School of Art and is founding editor of the online design journal Design Observer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And if you've got the attention span, you can watch the Twitter-length videos Helfand mentioned and catch up on the rest of our series at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.