The Idiot Effect

Or would you prefer, "The Old Man and the Sea"?

Or would you prefer, “The Old Man and the Sea”?

Last night, in a rash moment, my wife and I used pay-per-view last night to watch a film called “The Lazarus Effect.” The “effect” seems to be that when you use an experimental medical procedure to bring someone recently deceased back from death, what arrives is not the same person but an altered, super-powered mutation FROM HELL!!!! The movie wasn’t terrible as mad experiments gone horribly wrong films go,  but what was immediately impressive about it was its length: the thing was running credits before an hour and fifteen minutes was up.

That’s a movie? In the Sixties and Seventies there were weekly TV dramas longer than that even if you didn’t count the commercials.

Recent studies have documented the diminishing attention span of the average American, with the young leading the way. The reasons for this are a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that the news media, entertainment industry and the arts are both accommodating this disability and contributing to it. The consequences are dire.

The American Century Theater, the intrepid, unfashionable and soon to be defunct professional theater company I have been honored to serve as artistic director for 20 years, goes gentle into that good night in part because of this phenomenon. Our repertoire is neglected 20th Century stage works of importance and cultural value, and one of the main, though far from the only, reasons these great dramas and comedies are seldom produced is length. Never mind quality, depth of thought, complexity of character: what matters most, when it comes to putting “butts in the seats,” is often not quality but quantity, with less being more. The problem is that life is layered and mysterious, and truth and understanding often require more than 140 characters.

When a patron (or board member) would tell me that a play was “too long”—our productions have probably averaged a half an hour or more longer than the offerings of any of our seventy or so professional competitors in the D.C. area—-my answer was usually that a story takes as long to tell as it takes to tell, and if that story is worth telling, it cannot be “too long.” In many cases, what I wanted to say was “The play isn’t too long, you are just too stupid.”

Of course, some plays, like some books and movies, are too long. Some successful novelists need a tougher editor to stop them from rambling (I’m looking at you, Stephen King…),  and productions of great plays drag because the actors aren’t skilled enough to do the piece justice, or the director is asleep at the switch. Nevertheless, the trend of sacrificing content, nuance, subtlety and intensity for length alone is a death spiral of the soul and the mind.

Schools, indeed colleges, eschew books for length assuming that the video-game crippled minds of the students—and, I fear, the similarly handicapped abilities of their teachers— can’t tolerate it. Our leaders habitually speak in easily digestible soundbites that result in black and white pronouncements and partisan polarization, or, in the sad cases of politicians like Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry, consistent incoherence requiring translations and clarifications afterwards. News stories in print and on the air are shorter and shorter: I was genuinely stunned to pick up a copy of USA Today after a year of ignoring it to find its content so truncated and minimal as to be virtually useless. This is not good for us, our children, our nation, or anyone.

There is nothing beneficial about a short attention span. Health advocates lecture us about our declining physical fitness, our obesity, and  life style choices that threaten our lifespan and quality of life, but I hear literally no one arguing that the culture needs to be improving and lengthening our citizens’ attention spans, and our ability to concentrate on, process, and even enjoy articles, lectures, speeches, books, movies, plays and ideas that cannot be fully developed and conveyed in the time it takes us to brush our teeth.

This is not an argument for bloat, nor a plea to return to the bizarre days when audiences would pay to sit for hours watching a stationary ornamental screen on a stage wondering when Houdini would emerge from behind it free from his restraints (Harry usually was out in a few minutes and then sat behind the screen reading a newspaper until he sensed the moment was right.) I am pointing out that we have an ethical obligation not to allow our society and ourselves to drift into idiocy, and that an inability or unwillingness to accept useful information that requires concentration, patience and commitment will inevitably have that result.

Stupid people make stupid societies, and stupid societies make stupid choices. Stupid choices lead to disaster.

I know: everything in our culture is conspiring to reduce our attention spans to the vanishing point. Well, fight it.  Read “War and Peace,or “King Lear.” See an O’Neill play. Watch a TED lecture. Tackle the Sunday Times.

Those of you who made it to the end of this post, that is…

(Meanwhile, here’s a test.)



30 thoughts on “The Idiot Effect

  1. I’m sorry, Jack. I read the first five letters of the title and thought it was the Wizard of Id, and that reminded me of the Wizard of Oz, which reminded me of red shoes, which reminded me of hang on let me check Twitter to see if anything updated in the last twenty seconds, what was I talking about again, hey let me check twitter

  2. An interesting topic for reading, Jack. And I even managed an 84 score on that little test that you linked to at the end. This problem with attention span though has been with us for such a long time that it now almost fits within our culture as a norm.

    My own little story was over 30 years ago but it involved giving a critical report verbally to my boss when his phone rang. Without so much as an “Excuse me while I take this”, he picked up the phone and started having a conversation while I stood there. After a more than reasonable length of time, I simply walked away thinking I needed to tie a cow bell around my neck next time so that my conversation could compete with a ringing telephone. I have since seen this scenario repeated on multiple occasions.

    My concern is what will become of many of our children who already exhibit this tendency to focus mainly on short, bite-sized pieces of a story while missing the big picture of what it had been pulled from? How does one address or remedy this societal failure that certainly affects such things as critical thinking? Perhaps that is why your blog seems so fascinating, as it appears you’ve attracted a crowd of well-rounded responders. Kudos!

  3. Funnily enough, recently I thought films were getting longer! Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World all clock in at two hours or more, though I don’t know if that includes the duration of the credits. Of course, those examples are all rather action-heavy, so I suppose already tuned towards a low attention span.
    Also since you started off with a film, you missed a trick not referencing Idiocracy somewhere.

  4. Our repertoire is neglected 20th Century stage works of importance and cultural value, and one of the main, though far from the only, reasons these great dramas and comedies are seldom produced is length.

    The big blockbuster films (such as Jurassic World ), typically have a run time of about two hours, so that means that people willing to sit for two hours to watch a production.

    I wonder if labor costs are one of the reason stage plays are significantly shorter than two hours. A play has higher marginal labor costs than a film. A long story may not be worth telling if not enough people are willing to pay for it to make up for the costs.

  5. Eric, I agree. If it’s good enough people will pay attention for as long as they need to. Harry Potter books are my go to example of this phenomenon. Students in elementary school will stick with a long story if it is told well. I got 43 on the attention span quiz so I clearly need to work on mine, but even I can stay at a task I enjoy for a long time.

  6. I’m wondering if part of the reason attention spans are getting shorter is because there is so much pressure on people to know and do as much as possible, so they avoid spending too long on any particular task. It’s true that people are probably developing their attention less, but I think people are also operating in a different environment, with all sorts of fascinating new opportunity costs for anything they spend more than a little while on, so anything they spend more time on needs to be very impressive indeed.

  7. Whenever you complain about technology having a negative effect, you run the risk of someone saying, “I guess you would have been against the printing press and wish we hadn’t invented books,” or something to that effect. But it’s worthwhile to explore whether something valuable is lost whenever technology advances communications.

    In the days of Jesus or Buddha, a public speaker could recite a lengthy sermon and his followers could learn to recite it back almost verbatim. Ideas worth recording could be written down, but the process was painstaking, only an elite few possessed copies, and a lot of people couldn’t read anyway. If you couldn’t pay attention, process information, and then tell the story to others accurately, knowledge would be lost. Before Gutenberg, the sciences and general knowledge could only progress so far…but on the plus side, everyone was really good at listening, pondering, and telling stories.

    In those famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, crowds of up to 15,000 people would turn out to hear two men without microphones talk uninterrupted for 30, 60, and 90 minutes at a time, until their voices grew hoarse. Compare to modern TV debates, and have a good chuckle.

    Widespread literacy took away our need to keep all of our stories, histories, and knowledge in our heads, so maybe it cost us our super-memory and awesome primitive attention spans. Still a good trade-off. Now instead of telling, say, a popular pirate story to the kids that you heard from Grandpa, you can read them “Treasure Island” exactly the way Grandpa read it to you. Instead of folk tales that belong to everyone and are shared and embellished upon in countless ways, you have stories that are the property of the credited author, which we all receive uniformly. Sure, we’re still all at liberty to tell folk tales, but who wants to? The authors of great books are superior storytellers to Grandpa. So, we get better stories, but we lose the custom and practice of telling stories ourselves.

    With radio, your brain isn’t doing the work of imagining the sound anymore. Just the visuals. You lean back and enjoy a radio presentation of “Treasure Island” and your imagination only works twice as hard. A good trade? Almost certainly, right?

    Go to a “Treasure Island” movie…and your imagination just plain shuts off. Your brain takes a completely passive stance and just soaks in all the stimuli. Is this still a good trade? I dunno. Go to a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie…and the rapid-fire scene cuts, loud noises, constant changes in tone, and barrage of special effects completely overwhelm your brain. You quite literally burn fewer calories and use less brainpower than you do while fast asleep, and the parts of your brain that are usually being creative, skeptical, or autonomous are now being pinned down and bombarded insomuch that it effects core belief systems. It might not be inappropriate to call it brain rape. Now ramp up consumption of that sort of media to several hours per day, more time than is spend doing anything other than sleeping, and…we now have scientists telling us that goldfish have longer attention spans than we do. Is that still a good trade? There’s got to be a line somewhere, right?

    I haven’t really thought about it before, but I wonder if this conversation…about long vs. short movies, has to do with big, effects-filled blockbusters being better suited to short attentions spans. If you go to a Harry Potter or a Transformers movie…these are massive “event” films that you may even be paying a 3D surcharge for. So you expect “more for your money” and the blitzkrieg on your senses provided for by the film’s 200 million dollar budget helps hold your attention for a solid 200 minutes.

    If that hypothesis is correct, than artsy movies and medium-budget movies would be getting shorter (shorter films cost less and you can show them more times per day, maximizing profit and minimizing risk if they fail), but big dumb blockbusters would be getting longer.

    • Beat me to it. I was just about to comment that longish action/special effects movies—often in 3D—show diminished span, not better. Such films are a series of short thrills, not extended, developed content.

      • That’s a matter of the medium, not a sign of mental decline. If someone wants to have extended, developed content, they can now do it in a TV show with much more time with which to work. 3-D movies with lots of special effects are perfect for theatres. Theatres can also charge more for the glasses. Consequently, that’s what people make when writing for movies.

        • TV/Netflix/On Demand isn’t a fair comparison, Eric. When people “stream”, they send e-mails and text messages, stop the show, go to the bathroom, have conversations, get snacks, take phone calls, answer the door, play with the dog, yell at the kids. That medium epitomizes the short attention span trend, and if you think those who watch shows that way actually follow it as closely as they would in a theater watching a play, I think you are very wrong. Several times TV stations have admitted to running film segments out of order, and not receiving a single complaint.

          • People follow television shows pretty closely, at least based on the conversations they have about them afterwards (which I have observed in person, in newspapers and online). Shows nowadays require attention in order to understand what’s going on in later episodes.

            Also, people who read books take breaks to send e-mails, go to the bathroom, etc. Do books epitomize the short attention span trend?

            • I was anticipating that last question as I wrote the comment. I think reading in fact does require a longer attention span—one cannot comprehend or appreciate style, language and complex novel construction if one is constantly being interrupted or interrupting oneself. That’s why there are “airplane books” Malcolm Gladwellesque, “Frekonomics” books with short chapters and a lot of factoids. Those aren’t literature; neither was “The Book of Lists.”

              TV shows require attention, but there isn’t all that much to follow in most of them. If you binge on, say, Orange is the New Black, you are really watching a hundred short vignettes. TV shows—look at Columbo, for example, —once had a rich character developed over time and a single plot in an extended episode. Now most shows, even serious dramas, have multiple plots that give the illusion of complexity but really aren’t complex, just convoluted. They are potpourris. Does a season long plot require attention span, or just routine?

              You are on to something, I just can’t be sure what.

              • Even readers of great literature put the books down to engage with the rest of their life, get distracted by their children, have dogs that want to play right when they get to the interesting part, etc. Yet they still enjoy the books and even comprehend them.

                Shows with multiple plots and stories that extend over several hours of content require a greater attention span than a show with a single plot told in one extended episode broadcast in one time slot.

        • Well it’s true that I’d rather go to a theater to see a big blockbuster. Indie movies about friendship look just as good on TV.
          But couldn’t you always have watched TV? What’s different? The most popular shows are a lot more like movies now, and have huge budgets and big stars. And then there’s a ton of cheaply made reality stuff. Everything in all mediums is faster, noisier, and even the shows about cooking are creatively edited and overlaid with epic music to make them seem like the chefs trying to finish their eggs in time are diffusing ticking bombs.

          • The difference now is that television show writers can assume that you will see every episode of the show. Previously, if viewers had to watch a show at, say, 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening to catch an episode, television writers had to assume that episodes would be missed. Individual episodes had to be more or less self-contained (there were exceptions, obviously, but not as often).

            With the advent of DVDs on which entire seasons could be sold cheaply, writers could assume that viewers would see the entire series. They could write stories that went beyond single episodes, and even beyond a single season. Netflix and streaming accelerated this trend, as writers could assume that, if all episodes were released simultaneously, people could watch the whole story in one go, if they want to.

            Television shows are more like movies because they can now be more sophisticated, which attracts better stars, better writers and more money.

            • Two additional factors that fit right in with the point you’re making:
              1) The availability and prevalence of DVR’s means that people can indeed watch that show that was on at 7:30 PM on Thursday . . . on the following Saturday.
              2) The major television networks have established a convention of making recently-broadcast episodes available for later viewing on their respective websites.


            • I’d never say that television is more sophisticated now. Television is just more EVERYTHING now (including more crass and more stupid) because there are infinity channels and you can record whatever you want. I just see that as TV adapting to survive.

              The kind of shows that people can binge-watch are still TV shows…they’re still coming in small doses, while having more of the sensory overload that movies use. The only show I’ve ever really binge-watched is 24 once, and I didn’t have a good experience even though I couldn’t stop. (Is that what drugs are like? How can people do that with so many shows? When do they get any work done?) But 24 is like a series of action explosions, it’s not exactly subtle, so maybe not the best sample. I don’t gather from the entertainment universe that people’s attention spans aren’t getting shorter…it looks more like creators are doing more and more to keep our attention.

  8. A decade ago a friend invited me to the Romeo and Juliet ballet, on the same day I was taking a flight that I could not move or miss. Having discussed that with him, he agreed to let me leave early so I could catch my plane.

    We were both expecting the classical 3+ hour version, but instead got a 95 min. one that looked more like a Broadway production, with theatrical sets and a VOICEOVER.

    I guess the good part is that he could drive me to the airport and we had dinner before I left. Also, we haven’t been to another production by this company, the largest and most successful in this area, by the way.

  9. ‘Read “War and Peace,or “King Lear.” See an O’Neill play. Watch a TED lecture. Tackle the Sunday Times.’

    Since I retired fifteen years ago, I’ve been getting around to my high school summer reading list. I’ve read “War and Peace.” Tolstoy could have used a good editor, as, frankly, could have Proust. I’m almost done with “Recapturing Lost Time.” Greatest book ever but a lot could have been chopped out. I’ve read “Middlemarch” and “The Golden Bowl” (James is awful, impenetrable and irrelevant). But my point is that unless you’re Harold Bloom and can read four hundred pages an hour or whatever he claims to be able to read, it’s difficult to absorb high grade, non-formulaic fiction. Most often, a paragraph or a page contains so much brilliance, you have to put the book down and absorb it (or go to sleep).

    TED lectures are easy. Too easy. I think they’re custom made for people who are texting and surfing the net while they watch them. The audiences seem particularly annoying. Multi-taskers (an impossibility) all.

    And read a Sunday New York Times? I’d rather kill myself. Might as well ask me to actually finish a “New Yorker” article. The NYT is suspect and unreadable “Pravda”-like gruel. An awful way to ruin a weekend.

    Maybe I should have taken that speed reading course my mother wanted me to take in seventh grade.

  10. As a genre, I try to avoid action movies with too many special effects. The characters are generally stereotypical and not that interesting. Although Tolstoy probably needed an editor (and definitely Proust!), the duel scene in which Pierre Buzukov wounds Dolokov after being provoked made a vivid impression on me when I read it in college. Most movies made in Hollywood seem to have one purpose: to make lots of money.

Leave a Reply to P.M.Lawrence Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.