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.

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