Canard

One of the dumbest, most ignorant, and most insulting things I’ve heard in the present culture debates is that younger people have a short attention span.

Where did that come from? I won’t try to unearth the history of that insane assertion, other than to suggest that it might in part derive from conventional wisdom about MTV—the videos, supposedly, have a lot of quick cuts, which then infected movies, commercials, and just about everything else in our culture, creating undemanding fodder for people who can’t keep a thought in their head for more than a few seconds at a time.

But I do know this. The idea is smug and self-serving. If we define our ways as superior—“we” being, in this case, people in the arts and especially in classical music—and everybody else’s ways as lacking, then we win. And even if we lose, in the sense that everybody else gives up on everything we love, we still can feel superior. We were overwhelmed by barbarians, who just can’t pay close enough attention to appreciate the things we say are good for them.

Such bullshit. Why don’t we look for a moment at some of the things that younger people are famously inclined to do? Designing websites, for instance. Takes about five minutes, doesn’t it, to create a sophisticated site. That’s why Photoshop costs $29.99, retail, right? And has just a dozen menu items in its interface. Anybody can create graphics for the web. You don’t even have to think. The people who come to your sites certainly won’t!

Video games. Hand-eye coordination; that’s what they’re about. You don’t have to think. You just react. Never mind that Stephen Johnson, in his indispensable book Everything Bad is Good for You, has extensively documented just the opposite, showing something that the high-culture snobs of course would know, if they’d ever played a videogame, or even looked at one. Video games take many hours to complete, and require complex strategy.

Which also means creating them is difficult. Months, years of labor are involved. Complex graphics, complex computer programming, complex planning of the storyline and interface. Oh, but they take breaks every 15 minutes! Yeah, right. Work all night would be more like it.

How about software design in general? Endless work. Fashion design? Nothing to it. Everybody knows that young designers knock off their fall collections in a single evening. Pop music? As one classical music critic who used to write for The New York Times once said to me, “In pop music, they take no care with what they do.” Those were his exact words. I could only stammer, “Don’t you read the pop music coverage in your own newspaper?” “Yes,” he said, a little bit abashed. “That’s what the pop critics always say to me.”

In fact, pop music takes an enormous amount of work, much of it in the production of recordings. Any teen can do this now at home, using music software which famously puts the power of a giant recording studio right inside your laptop, for just a few hundred dollars. Has anyone who thinks younger people have a short attention span ever used this software? Do they have any notion of how complex it can be? Have they ever tried to sculpt the precise sound of a delay (a sort of echo effect, but much more subtle), working for an hour just to set the timing of the delay (the speed at which the sound repeats, with special care to plot this against the speed of the music’s beats); the volume (or, to be more precise, the volume envelope, the speed with which the repeated sounds get louder or softer); and the EQ of each repetition (so the timbre of the sounds can change as they repeat and fade away)? And all this just for four seconds of one of 14 songs on somebody’s next album. (See more or less any issue of two magazines, Electronic Musician and Keyboard, for many more details. And these are just the publications that especially appeal to nonprofessionals!)

It’s just a bad joke to say that younger people have a short attention span. And I’ve just cited what it takes to work in areas stereotypically associated with younger people. How about young scientists, young scholars, young novelists, young choreographers? Does anybody seriously think that young physicists give up on string theory after 20 minutes, and then watch Leave It to Beaver reruns? If this all weren’t such a serious mistake, I’d just hoot with laughter.

From long experience with these debates, I’d expect one of two answers to what I’m saying here. One would be that everything I’ve cited is an exception to the general rule. But of course that line of argument is metaphysical, in the sense that the logical positivists used the word. You’re making an assertion that can’t be verified. Or, to put it differently, if you’re going to tell me that any piece of evidence that seems to prove you wrong is atypical, then the proposition you assert—that younger people have a short attention span—is unfalsifiable. Nothing could ever prove you wrong. Of course, a notion that can’t be proved false also can’t be proved true, but that won’t bother you. You know what you know.

The other thing I might expect to hear is truly wonderful. “Oh, all right. Younger people do think about some things. But they’re the wrong things!” Which of course shifts the ground of the discussion entirely. And makes it pointless to have started off by saying that younger people have a short attention span, since this really wasn’t what you meant. You meant, really, that you hate everything about contemporary culture. Which would be worth talking about, but why didn’t you say what you meant in the first place?

What’s really going on with those MTV jump cuts, and everything allied to them, isn’t short attention spans. It’s a demand for complexity, that arises from increasing speed in processing verbal and visual and sonic information. Our culture, in other words, is getting smarter instead of stupider. See Stephen Johnson for more details. If we in classical music don’t realize the truth of what he says, we’re dead.

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