Wednesday, August 30, 2006

short attention span theater

Sometimes I worry about my attention span. As our society progresses technologically and we get more and more accustomed to quick fixes and instant gratification, our culture also becomes more disposable. I am certainly a victim of the laziness that comes from having things too easy.

Music is a good example. Once upon a time, I listened to cassettes. Usually, I would listen to specific albums all the way through, and if I wanted to hear a particular track, I had to patiently fast forward or rewind to the right place. Then CD's came along and, after much resistance, I started buying them. As begrudging as I was about the newer technology, I did like the convenience of being able to skip over undesirable tracks and the more streamlined appearance of the compact disc, which was neat and slim to its chunkier cassette counterpart. I swore CD's would be it for me, and gradually upgraded my collection, which today still has gaps in it (the fact that I have Nine Inch Nails' first album on tape only is a travesty).

Then Napster came along. Regardless of the legality/morality of downloading songs, five or six years ago I started doing it. I still do it once in a rare while (and I really don't want this to turn into an ethics discussion, because most of what I download are isolated songs I would never pay for or albums I end up buying down the road--plus, I go to lots of concerts to support bands I love, which is where they make more of their money, anyway). MP3's made music even more disposable. Don't like a song? No need to skip over it; delete it! There was no more fuss with going to record stores and fumbling with jewel cases and queing up CD's; any desired song was a few mouse clicks away.

It took two wiped out hard drives full of tons of downloaded songs for me to value my CD's again.

Until the iPod.

Once again, I resisted. I would not become one of those zombies on the subways with the pale wires flowing out of their ears. I would not be immune to my surroundings by plugging into a machine the size of my palm that contained thousands of songs. Hang on a second. A machine the size of my palm that could fit thousands of songs? That sure was a lot more convenient than dealing with my discman. Plus, I had an hour commute to and from work every day, which made it a justifiable investment. Then, a couple of years ago, I was due for a hefty tax return and splurged on my own 40G toy. This also changed the way I listened to music, because for a while, I had it set to shuffle all songs. Which turned my audio collection into a randomized jukebox and hurt my ability to enjoy a full album for a while. Why bother, when I could hear the best songs any time I wanted to? Why be patient with tracks that take many listens to build and develop an appreciation for when I can skip right over them?

I did regain my love for albums and more patience with less desirable tracks, but then, several months ago, my iPod battery started dying a slow death. It still has some life in it, but I haven't touched the thing in over a month because I am in denial and reason with myself as long as I don't listen to it the gadget is still functional. My main source of music has been, a great site (part of the intriguing "music genome project") where you can customize radio stations based on song and artist preferences. This has been a terrific source of new music, but not so great for my musical attention span. It has gotten to the point where listening to an entire Tom Waits album, which I'm doing as I type this, has become a novelty. I keep experiencing a certain amount of surprise at the consistency of mood and style of the music playing in the background.

I may be stretching the point here, but the reason why all of the above concerns me is because it seems like there are all of these different elements in society (technology being only one of them) that conspire to make us lazier and less patient. I get suckered in along everybody else and absolutely love convenience, but I also know that it sometimes makes for less satisfying experiences when things come to easily. Also, how long is it before the disposable mentality spills over into more important areas. Don't like your new friends? Dump them and get some new ones. Same with that boyfriend. And job. Right now we shuffle through songs and stations, but how long is it before we shuffle through people and experiences?

Or maybe we're already there?


pookalu said...

already there.

but i did read through your entire post! ask me about getting through an entire newspaper? hmmm...

Anonymous said...

What people forget about albums is that they are themselves an artificial construct -- a result of a technology, not a raison d'etre for it. Kinda like how keyboards aren't arranged for typing speed, but instead to allow the word "typewriter" to be hidden in the top row of keys so salesmen didn't actually have to learn to type to sell them.

But the unit of popular music has always been the song, so it's not surprising, or a shame, that the music world is reverting to that.

I'd argue that it was really about the song even in the LP/CD era. You bought albums for the one or two songs you liked, because singles were weird, and albums gave you the cool art and gave you a sense of belonging. Most of all, we used to have that weird fantasy that every song on the album would be as good as the radio single.

But now we can hear every song before we buy the album. And now we know that the other nine songs suck.

The LP was created to compete with the 78 -- MORE SONGS! BETTER QUALITY! -- but people still expected them to be the same size as a 78 single-song record.

Dolly said...

It's so depressing, isn't it? And I don't read papers, but I try to read really big (500-1000-page) books from time to time to make sure my attention span doesn't totally abandon me. It helps!

Letters on keyboards were also arranged in the most invonvenient possible layout to minimize incidents of the keys jamming. But I get what you're saying. I think back in the 50's and 60's music was more singles-oriented, but it seems like it wasn't long before concept albums were big. I guess it all comes back to that age old argument of art versus commercialism. Still, I can think of albums from the last five years that were strong from first song to last (of course I could name many more pre-2000). It's interesting that people are more single- than album-oriented, when the opposite holds true for the written word, with novels being far more popular than the short story. I wonder why that is...

Anonymous said...


Hadn't known that jamming the typewriter was also considered...that's hilarious.

I think movies, radio & tv gradually destroyed the key audience for short-form fiction writing. People got used to having stories performed for them, so they stopped buying them in magazines. And most of those magazines are long gone, too.

The New Yorker still publishes short stories, but it's more of a tip of the hat to a vanished past than anything else.

kevin said...

Hang on a second, this post wasn't about cocks or dolls! :)

Transformer said...

THe iPod seems to me to have made music more like a baseball card. You can collect and collect and get rid of what you don't want quickly and also have tons of musiv you never even listen to.

Also, I've found that regular meditation does wonders for patience and the attention span.

Dolly said...

The short story may be dying out, but the novel is still going strong, despite the proliferation of visual media. This is something that seems a bit contradictory, but also gives me hope for mankind.

I thought the readers deserved a break from the obvious.

Meditation has a lot of great benefits. I have been meaning to make time for it again, thanks for the reminder!

Judy said...

I have always thought one of the problems comes down to the fact that there are simply too many choices out there. I know having a lot of choices is supposed to be a good thing, but I think there are studies out there that that people out there become anxious when faced with too many choices and often second guess themselves when they make a decision. I think it often leads to things and people becoming expendable. Sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Judy hits the it on the head. The problem people have today isn't a short attention span. It's that so many people are completely victim to their desires. So many choices - AND I WANT TO TRY THEM ALL!!! As such, many people find it impossible to sit still and enjoy the meal they are having now, the book they are reading now, the song they are listening to now.

Dolly said...

Judy and Anonymous,
I couldn't agree more. One of the next books I want to read, The Paradox of Choice, is on that very topic. I think there's also a problem with the upgrade mentality; we don't want to invest too much in what we have now, because a newer and "better" model is bound to come along soon. Yet the things that give us the most satisfaction are usually the simplest.

Constant Dater said...

I think the paradox of choice holds true for relationships as well as more tangible things. We find it so hard to commit to one choice knowing there are other equal (and possibly superior) options. Rather than enjoying the bounty, we usually end up feeling anxious that we've made a less prime choice than we might be able to make, or feeling neurotic that another person is feeling that anxiety about us.

NotCarrie said...

I think the theory can be applied to other things...definitely! We all want things NOW and FAST, we don't want to work at them.

Meg said...

My 40GB died a slow death as well.... I agree with all the posts.

I think the advent of consumerism and blantant laziness comes from the 80s, the decade of decadance.

If you think New Yorkers are lazy, you should check out the rest of the world. My friend's fiancee drives 2 blocks in a mid-sized city to go to the movies.

NotCarrie said...

My iPod died, too:( said...

walking pass