Cybernaut 

In praise of short attention spans

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They call us the MTV generation because we were brought up with television (although not MTV because it’s not available in Canada) and are famous for our chronically short attention spans. Our inability to focus is blamed on the fact that television shows, movies, music videos and video games are moving faster and faster, with something happening or changing every three to five seconds or so.

For people who grew up watching news without the now standard scrolling news and stocks tickers, or television shows made with a single camera and perspective, our need for a constant barrage of sensory data to keep us interested is a bad thing. But it has its upsides.

Only a few years ago an NFL football game used to be broadcast with just four cameras. In the 2005 Super Bowl, there were more than 30 cameras in use, covering all angles of the field to give us perspectives on the game we’ve never seen before. A hockey game used to have two cameras, and now there are no less than eight for a regular season game, and probably close to 30 during the play-offs. We can see what the goalies see, and instant replays catch everything that happens where the puck isn’t.

Even for dramatic shows, like Law and Order, it’s rare to see a camera shot that lasts longer than five seconds without some kind of cut-scene or movement, unless it’s for dramatic effect. And 24? Sometimes they have up to four scenes going on at the same time, all while the clock ticks off seconds in the corner.

Whether this accelerated form of entertainment is good or bad, the jury is still out. More and more kids are being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obesity, and that could never be a positive thing, but on the bright side we can pack more into our days than ever before – which could be good or bad, depending on the person.

Here’s the thing – my own attention span is so short these days that I can’t even sit through an entire sitcom without becoming impatient. So instead of just sitting there, I’m also playing guitar or reading or doing something on the computer like playing with GarageBand or looking up stuff on Wikipedia.org. Most of the time, unless there’s a sports event or a movie I want to watch, I just turn the television off. That’s right – television gave me such a short attention span that I can’t even watch television anymore, however quickly the camera jumps around.

Some of the things I discovered this week while unable to sit still: a league is three miles long, the giant auk (northern penguin relative) was hunted to extinction partly for mattress stuffing, the Rosetta Stone was discovered by scientists in Napoleon’s army in 1790, and there’s a hand guitar ‘power wheel’ that helps you quickly find the right major and minor chords for dozens of standard progressions. None of it much use in every day life I admit, but still more productive than a half hour of Friends.

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