Complex ideas take time — and we no longer have any. Shrinking attention is changing the kinds of stories we can tell. This has already dumbed down our entertainment. We could be next.
Deep thought may be our defining capacity as a species. Like any capacity, it can get stronger with practice or weaker with neglect. The stories we tell and ideas we give our attention to, shape our collective thoughts and minds.
Stories are the connective tissue of society.
Movies used to be central to our zeitgeist. They were the big stories that connected whole Generations. They struggle to claim that kind of cultural prominence now. People have less time. There are too many options at the box office and on other media.
The Godfather is one of the best films ever made. If you want to watch it, you need to set aside 3 hours. Many classics require a similar investment.
Getting people to watch trailers on social media is one of the primary pursuits of movie studios now. It can be challenging because at around 2.5 minutes, trailers are considered ‘long’ content. Trailers traditionally played to a captive audience in theaters which allowed for a slow build up and some undulation. Today they have to come out swinging to hold audiences ready to thumb to the next content in their feed. One solution to this is what some call ‘bumpers’ — a 6 second trailer to the trailer, usually packed full of action, to convince audiences to stick around deeper into the video, like this:
Three hours is an eternity now. We struggle to hold people for a few seconds.
Phones have changed the value of our time.
Boredom has quietly disappeared. Standing in a queue, waiting at a red light, standing in the lift, waiting for your food or a train or a plane, waiting for anything — used to be dead time. Now we plug into the world we have at our fingertips. With this, we lose the benefits of boredom, like time to think. Perhaps more consequential is that the opportunity cost of time is now measured in seconds. Books or films that were once hills to climb are now mountains.
Ubiquitous access to media has turned us into compulsive snackers and it’s made our stories shorter.
It’s the majority media that really matter.
People continue to proliferate amazing ideas and stories, maybe even more than ever, but what kind of ideas do we spend the majority of our time with? What does the average person’s average media look like now?
We now spend many hours on our phones every day (3+ in the USA). This is a serious chunk of our waking hours.
You can watch movies and read books on your phone, but they’re best suited to shorter bursts of information. The cumulative three plus hours daily on our phones comes at the expense of other things in our lives. Slower, less efficient activities seem more laborious as faster paced media become more available
What happens when media becomes skippable?
Things become shorter. To deliver a punchline or a completed idea, everything shrinks when the audience can wave things away.
Content in fast paced environments lives and dies by how effectively it can hook and hold audiences. This skews it to certain subjects and more obvious storytelling. It’s a beauty contest.
Perhaps more important than what shorter stories do is what they cannot do. The medium is the message, as they say. Certain ideas can only travel in certain vessels. Big ideas need big vessels. Our vessels are getting smaller.
Youtube counts video views when someone has watched for at least 30 seconds. When Facebook got into video they started counting views and charging for ads at 3 seconds. Snapchat followed, charging advertisers the moment their video starts because most ads on the platform don’t make it to 3 seconds before being skipped. The primary unit of consumption of these video platforms has evolved from 30 seconds to 3 seconds to a flash. The pace is growing faster and the portions smaller.
With limited time, critical story elements don’t work, like subtlety, nuance and plot. Stories delivered on face value struggle to elicit feeling.
It’s a common criticism that movie trailers are giving more and more of the story away in the hope of pitching the film. Abruptly delivering a plot easily backfires as the characters have not yet grown on us and the stakes don’t carry any weight.
If we spend the bulk of our media time in short format media, it will skew the content we get toward simpler ideas. Simplicity is an admirable objective in many instances, but surely not when it comes to our minds.
What do stories really do?
Stories shape our entertainment because they allow us to explore a world that is broader than our immediate one. This is escapism but it’s also a foundation for empathy.
Stories help us escape reality but more importantly they help us to understand it. The classic archetypes keep recurring because they reflect our nature. These are the big themes in the human story. They help us understand our deep underpinnings.
Even superhero franchises plug into probably the most prolific archetype of all: the hero; our desire -for one -to be one, and the fantasy of wish fulfillment.
Oscar Wilde said life imitates art. Plato and Socrates suggested that art imitates nature. Either way our stories are intertwined with our reality.
Movies and even books are by no means all full of high quality storytelling, but if we spend less time with longer formats we lose the kinds of stories that can take us on meaningful journeys.
Where does this story go?
Writers, filmmakers and artists continue to write our stories but phones and algorithms and the people who make them likely have a bigger role in shaping our future narrative.
If people watch fewer movies and read fewer books and spend most of their media time on quick fire social — then doesn’t our worldview become shallower?
The shift to new media has changed our behavior at an alarming pace. Phones have become a potent cocktail of ubiquitous, easy media and incentivized use. What’s the trajectory? Will new generations know boredom or have meaningful relationships with movies or even books?
Technology makes our lives easier. In the process it can weaken us. Cars allow us to travel further at the expense of our muscles. So what could technology do when we plug it into our minds?
If machines are making us simpler, while we’re making them smarter, perhaps they will eventually enjoy the arts for us. In the mean time we should choose to spend more time with slower, bigger ideas.