Have we lost something?

Last night I watched The Rolf Harris Show (the link is to the episode on iPlayer), originally broadcast in 1969. I've always been a bit of a fan of Rolf (mainly because of his Cartoon Time series when I was growing up), but I hadn't seen his variety show before.

What was interesting to me about this show were its expectations about the audience's attention span. After Rolf's intro, we were treated to Ivan Rebroff's rendition of Kalinka. Ivan sang in Russian for 4 or 5 minutes (across 4.5 octaves), standing alone on stage, dressed like a cossack. There is no way you'd get something like this on prime time family television in 2008. There was also an over-long, godawful, but in its way charming, skit on Robin Hood (starring Rolf and Barbara Windsor); an overwrought (but quite entertaining) song by Vince Hill; Val Doonican incongruously singing The Answer (is Blowing in the Wind) and one other; plus The Young Generation doing a dance number called The Continental (here they are dancing to something else).

In some ways, it's a good thing that we no longer have to suffer some of this tedium. But when I found my own fingers itching and my attention drifting, it made me ask myself whether I (and people more generally) have lost something: the ability to enjoy simple pleasures, like a person singing alone onstage. I know that's what BBC 4 and Radio 4 are about, and I know there are plenty of people who appreciate culture in that way. But perhaps the difference is that it's no longer a general feature of the population. TV was much simpler, naive, and dull when I was growing up. Life was much more dull, to be honest. Partly because I grew up in a tiny market town, but largely because everyone was poorer, at least where I lived. By comparison, life today seems to be accelerating, getting bigger, brighter; we get more and more stuff; we endlessly throw things away, change things; and our attention spans narrow, flitting from the old to the new. (I know this isn't an original insight, but Rolf's show brought the issue vividly to my attention.)

My daughter has never had to wait until a particular time of day to watch children's TV; she's always had access to computers, where you can watch virtually any event on YouTube (bees making honey, the moon landing etc.); she's got her own CD player in her room (no TV, for as long as we can prevent it); she gets to go out to lots of parks, museums, the cinema etc.. Thankfully, she loves drawing and writing, and will spend hours making pictures for friends and family, so she can entertain herself. But she has endless opportunities and a wealth of "stuff" which just wasn't the norm when I was growing up in the 70s. Everything is just there, all the time. We try really hard to make sure she appreciates what she's got, and realises how lucky she is. (Though it's hard to instill those values when she earns two or three rewards of pencils, keyrings, stickers, badges etc. for good behaviour at school every week. When I was at school the reward was a book, once a year, for pupils who'd done really well.)

I also watched Survivors last night. Fairly bleak dystopian sf (perhaps the credit crunch is to blame), and I thought reasonably realistic. It made me think along similar lines to watching Rolf: as well as moving further and further into the unreal realm of the media (the hyperreal simulation of the media, even, as Monsieur Baudrillard would have it), we have also moved further and further from our hunter gatherer origins. I thought this show reflected that pretty accurately. The characters in Survivors, faced with a world decimated by a virus, react in a variety of ways: denial, bewilderment, displacement activity, land grabbing. Mostly, though, they hope it will all go away, carry on arguing with each other, blunder around blowing up petrol stations, and don't really know what to do without the infrastructure that modern society relies on. I think I'd be the same in their situation, without my computer and TV and electricity, which makes me a bit sad. Though I can grow vegetables.

One last thing: talking about dystopias always reminds me of what I consider the dystopia par excellence: The Genocides by Thomas Disch. I don't think you can get it in the UK at the moment, but you can probably get it second hand (here it is on Amazon US). The basic story is that aliens have planted crops on the whole of the earth, gradually killing off all the native life except for people. People end up living in the stalks and roots of their gigantic plants, like field mice. The characterisation is fantastic (as with all Disch's work), but what I liked in particular was how the impending extinction of humankind did nothing to dampen their bickering and infighting. I'm sure that's how the world would end.


Is life better now?

People nowadays have more options, more entertainment facilities, more access to information. But I doubt if life really got better for ma. I our childhood, we used to sped a lot of time on fields, whereas children nowadays have to spend more time on TV or computer. Lack of empty spaces is a major concern too.

Also, in the media, risky elements for children increases everyday. More and more time has to be invested into checking if the younger ones are having access to something they do not likely fit for.

Anyway, a nice post. Thanks.

While the onslaught of

While the onslaught of certain types of technology lead to continuous partial attention, there is plenty to indicate that kids aren't losing the ability to concentrate altogether. Just watch any child get immersed into any ds/psp/wii/ps{2,3}/xbox game for hours on end (e.g. only the other a friend was worry about the amount of time their son was spend in Star Wars Lego Saga on the Wii). Also the classic example of 'Everything Bad is Good for you' is that 24 takes a lot more concentration than Starsky and Hutch, because the former has multiple characters and story lines over multiple episodes, whereas the latter is just a single story line of two cops v. some bad guys over one or maybe two episodes.

And although our kids may have 'lost something' compared to our generation; enjoying simple (slow developing) pleasures, or general patience, what have they gained in exchange? I think kids now have such unbounded horizons - whatever their interests are they can follow that interest as far as their abilities and time allows. Just thinking about when I was a teenager interested in computers and programming - finding examples of good code, learning new languages or concepts, finding where good programmers where and what they were doing, etc was difficult.

I don't think parks, museums, cinema, drawing, writing, etc lose their appeal just because there is an abundance of instantly available media, the challenge is to instill some level of 'fussiness' into the kids, not is a snobby highbrow sense, but rather don't just watch or do any old thing, you have almost infinite access to any media or activity, so only do the things that are or most interest / most stimulating - this hard to do but important whenever you have something in abundance (be more choosy in what you have or what you do).

Couldn't agree more

You have got a point about attention spans seeming to be shorter but I think it has more to do with the sheer variety that is available now and our human nature to not want to miss out on something so we try to get a bit of everything. I'm sure we've all had the stories from our parents that they didn't have a TV until they were 12 or whatever so it's probably worth bearing in mind that in '69 the households with a TV would probably have been the more affluent ones who were more into the highbrow stuff of operatic singing etc anyway.

I doubt the credit crunch is behind the bleak drama of Survivors, it's probably got more to do with a remake of 1970's Labour government policy

attention spans

I think that a major contributor to peoples short attention spans is television. because t.v has to sell advertising, products and everything else, the shorter the programme, the more they can make and then schedule advertisments accordingly. the second major factor is technology. we are now in a position where time and space is no longer linked (meaning that i can speak to someone in the USA from India without having to meet the person in real time). we have grown used to expecting more and more and as quickly as possible, so anything that requires a lot of attention is also looked at briefly.

Not missing, just missed

The children of today will look back at the oversaturated tv and radio advertising laiden media and long for it 20 years from now. No matter how things change and improve, we always look back ont he past as "better".


yes, i agree, no matter the times, we will always look back on the past and claim it to be the best times of our lives. and usually that IS the case, but TV is horrible i agree