Ars longa, vita brevis. So the old saying has it. But in our day and age wasn’t it supposed to be the other way round? The two things we are routinely told, usually with expressions of grave regret, are that we are all going to live much longer and that our attention spans are getting much shorter. The internet, with its glittery, split-tested linkbait and its dopamine-eliciting bursts of well-timed pleasure, is giving us a culture of attention deficit disorder. We are surfing the shallows, it’s said. We are distracted from distraction by distraction.
Yeah, right. To say that the evidence only intermittently supports this theory would be a bit of an understatement. The question in your mind when you went for the 8:45pm screening of a movie used to be: I wonder if I’ll be out in time to catch last orders in the pub? (That had the incidental advantage of sharpening one’s inner film critic: I confess to having abandoned the odd leading man dangling from a helicopter when it became clear the answer to the question was: “no.”)
Nowadays the question more often is: will I be out in time to catch the last bus or tube home? Look at your local multiplex. There’s Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Much more noticeable about it, for me, than the question of whether it endorses or merely portrays torture was the fact that it allowed you to relive the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in something close to real time. Or you could take in Tarantino’s Django Unchained and experience the history of slavery in the American south in real time, with added jokes. Or there’s Lincoln: watch the American civil war unfold in real time. The Gettysburg Address was three minutes long: Lincoln is 50 times that.
TV is the same. The two dominant paradigms are the competitive reality show and the boxed-set drama. The first of these—be it concerned with singing, diving or eating gizzards—asks for many hours of investment over many weeks, with subsidiary digital channels given over to yet more content: discussion, background material and out-takes.
The second of these, the boxed-set drama, is to all intents and purposes a soap opera and the more popular it is, the more of it they make. If you wanted to start watching The Sopranos or The West Wing now you’d be committing months out of your only life on earth. The main difference from soap operas of old is in the way they are consumed: the characteristic way of taking in box-set drama is the binge, where instead of watching over months and months you watch four episodes a night (thus throwing the pacing completely out of whack) until you feel sick.
Video games aren’t getting shorter either. My sister’s boyfriend gave me The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for my birthday. That’s said to have at least 300 hours of content in it, which is, allowing only four hours sleep a night and no breaks for food or water, still more than a fortnight’s continuous playing. “Good luck seeing daylight,” he said. Even a 69p pocket game on the phone typically has between 50 and 100 levels on it.
Tiny books? They exist, but they don’t look all that much like a trend. Not judging by my postbox. The New York Times bestseller I’ve recently been asked to review is 962 pages long. Ramones-style 2.5-minute pop songs? Again we look for these things in vain. Long boring albums with multiple bonus tracks or even whole bonus discs are much more the standard.
Where are the “blipverts” we were promised—the epidemic of one-second advertisements that would deliver products directly to our hindbrains before we had a hope of reaching for the remote with our sluggish mammal fingers? Where are the bite-sized narrative nuggets, the explosion of haikus and mini-sagas, the ever shorter and more fragmentary ways of digesting art? Where, for that matter, is the 15 minutes that Madonna was only supposed to be famous for?
YouTube, which seemed at the outset like a very good argument for exactly this sort of thing, has become an argument for the opposite. It used to only allow users to upload 10 minutes of video. Then in the summer of 2010 it upped it to 15 minutes. Now it has junked the limit altogether for many users.
Even Twitter, which looked like the ultimate in informational fast food, has burst its belt. “Storify” is used to compile tweets into great long chains, and you could spend the best part of a day and considerable resources of attention trying to decipher the back-and-forth in even a medium-sized Twitterstorm.
Far from whooshing through an accelerated culture, we’re entering a new age of bloat. Ars longueur, is what we’re seeing. I could go on, but you know what…