Internet and Attention Span

I’m going to use this blog today in the manner that my brother Steve finds most suitable for me, I’m gonna respond to my brother Ian’s blog. Actually, I think Steve would rather my blogs had more links in them and less text, but I’m not nearly as interested in “fact” as I am in “my opinion”.

And I do have a solutions blog for the theater producing blogs I wrote, but that will have to be, um, later. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in an hour.

Anyway, my brother argues today about a generational identity and puts forth a really compelling argument for our age being the age of parallelism. It comes as no surprise to Ian that 17% of the time when I read his blog I actually hurt my brain rolling my eyes, and about 60% of the time I can tell he’s just trying to write something to keep the blog going, which I admire more than you might think. Then there is 23% of the time when he blows my mind right to the washer and nut that holds my neck on, and today is one of those times.

Although I do have some arguments with his post.

You should read his post, it will better serve the argument than any kind of recap I could do (and plus, it’s a blog, it’s easy reading) but the thing that stuck out to me is that we, as a generation, have the ability to separate fact from circumstance. There is an extra step you have to go through when you’re dealing with what is, and that step is interpretation. And, even more important, that interpretation is chaotic, never static.

This is definitely due to an increase in the consumer culture we’re surrounded by, and also by the endless streams of information we’ve got. You can’t just say “which is the better golf club”, you’ve got to say, “I have a tendency to hit to the left and I over-hit my putter, what are the best clubs for my circumstance?” Because we have so many options about what to buy, we’re able to say more than “I want a fridge” we can say, “I have a number of various situations where a fridge is needed, what do you have to offer me, and how flexible is it because my circumstances are in a constant state of flux?”

However, there is a fundamental point that I disagree with Ian about, and that is the idea of generational identity. I have nothing in common with the people I was born with than the luck of geology. Ian’s obsession with generational politics is as confusing to me as a thinking person’s obsession with astrology, although the latter makes even less sense to me. What he is talking about is a rather narrow parameter, having to do with money, race, political leaning and education. I have more in common with my nephew Sean than I do with a lot of people born the same year I was. But I’ll accept the term for now, I’ll accept that it’s a generation, just because it’s easier to use that word than to use eleven words to work around it.

But, dropping that point, the thing I really want to nitpick with is the idea that the internet somehow is gonna foster a single-mindedness in our upcoming generation. The truth is that his parellelism is actually a series of obsessive single-minded-isms, that our generation spent three months in love with Led Zeppelin before finding The Cure. In a perfect world, that parellelism would cycle so fast that you could obsess over both Led Zeppelin and The Cure in such a short span that you pretty quickly see the similarities.

And that’s what we had, in the 70s and 80s. Despite the need for VH1 to assign some arbitrary idea to each year and each phase, the truth is that we were being steered by, strangely, Viacom to accept any different zeitgeist they wanted us to. Would we listen to Lita Ford in 1983? Yeah, probably. Would we still love The Jam in 1989? Yeah, we would, but we didn’t get the option. Because by the time 1988 rolled around, the endless loop of Madness’ “Our House” had been replaced by an endless loop of “Paradise City” by Guns-N-Roses.

Where do kids go for their videos? The internet. Where do they get to research their daily obsession? The Internet. MTV doesn’t even show videos anymore, they’ve dropped the pretense and now play half hour commercials for youth culture mixed up with thirty second commercials for youth culture. I spent a year obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe, if I had had the internet I would have done a Google search and been done with it in a month. Right now, kids are downloading songs and finding new bands at a rate that I can’t even imagine. When I find out what kids are listening to, I’m astonished at the breadth of their sophistication. Kids are listening to Radiohead and Sondheim and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The internet is not producing a single mindedness, it’s furthering the momentary obsession. The internet culture is a celebration of instant gratification and a dare to the long attention span. Instead of a year obsessed with Poe, I’d have spent three hours reading condensed bios of him and then spent a month in the library reading his poetry and short stories. What I actually did is swim through acre after acre of boring semantic biographies of Poe and then, defeated but gratified. read his poetry and short stories.

Even this blog is too long. We live in a world now that demands we say what we mean, and quickly, so that those obsessed with what we’re talking about can digest it and move on. I might be wrong, but I believe we are just entering the age of parellelism, where people can truly understand all sides of something, and at the same time take it both seriously and with a grain of salt. Our kids will get the chance to be a hundred times smarter than us (and hopefully in my case, even more) and that to me is thrilling.