Neal Gabler always makes me think; last week he made me think a little harder. His op-ed piece in the New York Times on August 13, 2011 “The Elusive Big Idea” (which I added to the Corporate Intelligence Radio Library) caused me once again to reflect on our spiritual respect for the technological achievements that too commonly enter our lives without enough awe. Thousands of years of civilization and learning have taken us through The Renaissance, The Industrial Revolution, and now Digital Transformation, putting on our desks and in our hands more MIPS (millions of instructions per second) than humanity ever could have envisioned just a half century ago, with Moore’s Law in little jeopardy of compromise anytime soon. And the question remains: what are we doing with it?
Gabler is a prolific author and senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at USC who suggests in his recent essay that in this post-Enlightenment Age, we may for the first time be going backward intellectually, and that as “information narcissists,” we are allowing our brain cycles to be consumed by endless temporal factoids at the cost of more thoughtful inquiry. I can’t do a better job of making the point than Gabler, so I invite you to read the full piece which is linked above, but his concern stems from the impact of the parade of dribbling tidbits from the internet that distract us from the harder work of digesting and discussing what were previously known to us as Big Ideas, the most recent of which were summarized in The Atlantic and didn’t seem so big to Gabler (me either!). We store and remember these media snacks for their brief life cycles, failing to reserve more extensive internal processing power for the ambiguous and abstract.
Since I have spent almost my entire career as part of the problem and never the solution it would be hard for me to get on this bandwagon without impeaching a life’s work, but I have to say, I am sympathetic to Gabler’s critique. I remember well our teachers’ fears when we were growing up, watching and memorizing ceaseless half hour episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, that our fragile attention spans were being decimated by the power of television. Every sitcom with its full 22 minutes of content has a beginning, middle and end, it tells a story with resolution that is mostly satisfying and even has three laughs per script page. Prior to that you’d need an hour of dramatic TV for story, prior to that a 2 hour movie, prior to that a 3 to 4 hour stage play, and prior to that a novel that might be as brief as Huck Finn but could be as long as Moby Dick. Indeed, our generation was the beneficiary of staggering efficiency. We welcomed those little yellow books then called Cliff’s Notes covering a novel with about 90% compacting — but then again, that still left a thirty or so page pamphlet that had to be read. The second year I was in college something crawled out of cable called MTV, and that took storytelling down to just about three minutes, even more efficiency, and many of these micro video operas were created by TV commercial directors, who could tell a story in 30 seconds. When YouTube gets the job done in under 8 seconds, I say that’s nice, but that was the easy part of the optimization, that just knocked out the last 22 seconds, the hard work of leaving Herman Melville in the dust was already diced and strained long ago.
How about that, an entire moral tale bypassing hundreds of reading pages, fully consumable in 22 minutes with two breaks for bathroom and pantry runs — O Brave New World (that’s a line from The Tempest, which is a play that was written by Shakespeare, who was a kinda like Steven Spielberg, back when Queen Elizabeth I would have had her mobile tapped if phones had been invented)! So if our attention spans are now down to 140 characters because that’s the Twitter standard adopted from mobile texting, how do we keep “longer forms” viable and where do we get into trouble when we don’t? I don’t have a solution anymore than Gabler does, because efficiency really is attractive for anyone who does not know what they are missing in the nuances of polysyllabic adjectives and adverbs, but I do worry about the ramifications. Because so many stories are now reported in sound bites, those featured in stories have learned to communicate with directed outcomes in sound bites. I am not too worried about this for entertainment purposes, if someone enjoys an 8 second tree squirrel ballet on YouTube and doesn’t wish to sit through The Mahabharata, I see it as their loss, but the sun will come out tomorrow. Eventually all culture could be destroyed, but after a few generations no one will remember.
What I do worry about is news and government leadership. Currently we seem satisfied to be internalizing critical issues in sound bites, and that is why we are being treated like idiots by our incumbent and aspiring leaders. They are taking for granted that we don’t have the patience to get in the weeds, so they are feeding us unsprouted seed fragments. They are failing at devising levels of substance because it is not required of them, we are accepting their failure, and the cycle repeats. We must make this stop.
The first decisive media sound bite I can remember was the Ronald Reagan game winning “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate, halting then President Carter from launching back into a long form malaise of more pedantic matters. I sense that much of Reagan’s future success was defined real-time in that smack down, and we learned to like him for style whether or not he followed through with substance. It seemed quite unscripted and endearing, and it worked. Today we listen to endlessly planned runs at sound bites, poor imitators of extemporaneous reduction, not even extracting them from context because they are context. We must make this stop.
How can we obstruct the content obstructionists? Again, Gabler is much more eloquent on the problem than I am, but I fear neither of us has a good solution. Here is what I can tell you — gadgets and efficiencies are going to continue to accelerate, and even if we could break free of needing to interpret consequential texts and tweets and posts, our kids are in it for the short haul. All I can suggest is that we do everything we can to teach them an appreciation for reading, help them to understand that multitasking while useful is the antithesis of focus, and lead by example by not letting any leader off the hook with a chorus of sound bites and no carefully composed libretto. The information is there if we want to read it or hear it or debate it, more than has ever been available is now being ignored, but we have to be willing to invest the time. Just like you won’t accept second-rate technology, stop accepting second-rate garbage in the form of info morsels where substance is required.
Feel free to still enjoy YouTube and reruns of Gilligan’s Island. Society will survive the culture shock, but where brevity is meant to mask laziness among issues that are critical to our sustenance, that has to be called out.