The Future Of ‘Short Attention Span Theater’

A few reactions/questions re. this interview with Jessica Helfand, author of Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture:

This skimming generation is going to be producing the media we consume, which Helfand calls both an opportunity and a challenge. “A friend of mine actually referred to this recently as, this is the culture of narrative deprivation,” she says.

“These are kids who don’t watch an entire episode of Saturday Night Live, they just go and watch the bits they want to see. They wait till a series comes out on Netflix, and they watch it all at once instead of the classic episodic nature.” Moreover, she adds, they prefer to watch things alone, on their own laptops — which also affects the viewing experience.

Helfand says she’s trying to channel that impatience, that desire to control the consumption of media, into creating a better visual, more compelling experience on the screen — an experience tailored to shorter attention spans.

Obviously the “narrative deprivation” comment isn’t coming from Helfand, but it is still a concern I feel confused by here in relation to the examples given. Watching an entire season of a show on Netflix doesn’t seem like narrative deprivation to me as much as an abundance of narrative. In particular, considering that shows are increasingly serial and less episodic, this would be an increasingly complex set of larger and smaller narrative arcs, which would seem to require a great deal of attentiveness and careful viewing from person watching. 

Also, the accusation of impatience here seems tricky. Is it impatient to wait the year plus until a DVD is released? Is it impatient to sit down and watching something in full for long stretches of time? That doesn’t seem like impatience to me as much as increased flexibility  in terms of how and when content is viewed. It also seems to reflect the needs of audiences who may not be able to afford cable, as well as a shift in labor away from predictable 9-5 hours with clear, work free, periods of leisure time.

The Future Of ‘Short Attention Span Theater’

“Information patterns travel incessantly inside and outside the machine, from disk storage to active memory to output devices to other computer sites. At the end of their journey through cyberspace—each packet of information following its own itinerary—bit patters recognize themselves into letters, words, and texts. Hopefully into meanings. Sometimes the words on the loose become malleable substance in our hands, as we grab them with a hand-shaped cursor, move them, erase them, banish and recall them, pull more words from under words, cut them out and paste them into a new context; sometimes they become actors and dancers on the stage of the computer screen, animated by the script of an invisible program; sometime they fail to regroup at the end of their trip, and the screen fills up with garbage, dismembered text, visual nonsense, or surrealistic graphics. Whether we play with them or watch them perform for us, whether we control them or they rebel against us, electronic words never stand still for long, never settle down on a page, even when a copy is sent to the printer; for the printer merely outputs a lifeless replica, a still photograph of objects in motion”

— Marie-Laurie Ryan, “Introduction,” Cyberspace Textuality” (1-2)

“We need to see popular culture as truly contradictory— not in some glib sense as meaning merely ‘complicated,’ but in the more precise sense that it works politically through disunity, at a number of levels, any or all of which might be in operation at different times, in different places, and in relation to different consumers.”

— Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory (175)

“the limitations of some music video analysis lie also in a mutation of textual analysis that is now prevalent in cultural studies. This is the practice of constructing textual readings not on the basis of a theorized relation between text and production, or between text and consumption, but rather between text and theory. This represents an abandonment of the original intentions of textual analysis, which were to illuminate the conditions of production… to engage in ideological critique… and to explore possible reading formations in the audience”

“Text analysis was thus firmly rooted not in the ‘disinterested’ project of literary or aesthetic criticism, but in the sociological (and sometimes psychoanalytic) project of understanding the social production and consumption of culture.”

— Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory (20)

(Some binaries are not like the others.)

“Work as Assemblage, a cluster of related texts that quote, comment upon, amplify, and otherwise intermediate one another.”

— Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer (105)

“Going along with the idea of Work as Assemblage are changed constructions of subjectivity. The notion of the literary work as an ideal immaterial construction has been deeply influenced by a unitary view of the subject, particularly in the decades when editors sought to arrive at the work by determining an authors ‘final intentions.’ The work as it was formulated using this principle in turn reinforced a certain view of the author as a literacy figure… the unitary work and the unified subject mutually reinforced and determined each other. As the rest of critical theory deconstructed the unified subject and exposed the problematic ideological bases on which it rested, editorial criticism underwent similar revisionist movements, particularly in Jerome McGann’s arguments for the ‘social text.’ Perhaps now it is time to think about what kinds of textuality a dispersed, fragmented, and heterogeneous view of the subject might imply.”

— Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer (106)

I think I know what song I’m singing in answer to this question. I am, in some things, rather predictable. 

I also think that this isn’t necessarily new though. Aspects of it are, but this is also about what’s made visible/material/traceable due to digital culture and the way we now live out our lives, at least in part, in a digital archive. Folk culture, however, certainly carries aspects of this and always has. But this also gets back to Hayles’ discussion of whether the Age of Computing is a metaphor (that we use on a cultural level to reorient ourselves), an actual shift, both, or if that matters at all. So, it may not matter how much of this is new/old, as much as its something we’re ready to think about more and notice in this moment. (And then, of course, we need to think about what that signifies.)

“If nothing else, I hope this book will convince you that literary and cultural critics steeped in the print tradition cannot simply continue with business as usual. Needed are new theoretical frameworks for understanding the relation of language and code; new strategies for making, reading, and interpreting texts; new modes of thinking about the material instantiation of texts in different media; and new ways to put together scientific research with cultural and literary theory.”

— Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer, 11

“Inscribing consequential fictions, writing machines reach through the inscriptions they write and that write them to re-define what it means to write, to read, and to be human.”

— Hayles, Writing Machines, 131

Which means, of course, that as these things are changed and redefined, methods of analysis (and pedagogy) must also shift accordingly.