The Future Of 'Short Attention Span Theater'

Yale graphic design critic Jessica Helfand says the phenomenon she calls "short attention span theater" is amplified by the digital gadgets many people now carry. i i
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Yale graphic design critic Jessica Helfand says the phenomenon she calls "short attention span theater" is amplified by the digital gadgets many people now carry.
iStockphoto.com

We've been looking at how technology has totally changed what it means to watch television or a movie. One of the biggest changes has been in demand — people want a baseball game — on their smartphone, wherever they are, right now. They want to pull up a video and stream it — on their laptop or phone, immediately, with no wait.

So, where is all this going? If the younger generation is demanding this much from their screens today, what will things look like in a few decades? Jessica Helfand, author of Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture, tells NPR's David Greene that it's a worrying trend.

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"The impatience with which people have come to expect everything to be delivered to them is a terrifying prospect," she says.

The Yale graphic design critic calls the phenomenon "short attention span theater" and says it's amplified by the digital gadgets most of us carry these days. Her students are constantly engaged in multimedia multitasking — reading, working on essays and checking Facebook every 10 minutes.

Chapter 10, a short film by Jessica Helfand for The Ezra Winter Project.

"You just have to wonder to what degree are they actually assimilating anything?" she says. "And my big concern is how deep anybody can go if they're spread so thin, if they skim everything."

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.

"So, for example, my students are making two-minute, sort of Twitter-length videos," she says. "So you're still compartmentalized within that very short trajectory of information, but then the challenge is, can you go deep emotionally, can you go deep visually ... but still deliver something that's dramatically interesting?"

A lot of energy and effort go into discussing the ways content will be delivered in the future — WiFi on a plane or a proposal by German researchers to deliver morning news and weather to your shaving mirror. Helfand says it's hard to speculate about what that content will look like.

"The unfortunate thing, I think, is that so much then gets expended on thinking about the box or the screen," she says, "instead of the content, and the ideas and the innovation that we bring to it, creatively and intellectually."

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