Magpie syndrome: Murdering our attention span

October 14, 2013


Just what we need: another idea to cripple the American attention span.

In a recent story on The Wrap, Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg was quoted from a speech in which he revealed an idea of how to further shrink the ability of audiences to pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time. He didn’t put it that way, but that was the potential effect of what he was talking about.

He said that he had offered the creators of “Breaking Bad” $25 million to make three more hour-long episodes of the series. He was then going to break those up into 30 six-minute chunks, which would be sold as a pay-per-view item (no doubt to be viewed on a smart phone).

Thankfully, Vince Gilligan and crew passed on the idea. But even as he told this story, Katzenberg said, “I just think that there is a whole new platform that is this short-form.”


Katzenberg is a smart guy, with an impressive resume of credits and accomplishments. But this seems like yet another in the long list of “advances” that serve to destroy our appetite for anything other than the quickest and most fleeting kind of stimulation, intellectual or otherwise.

Bookstores are dying, reading scores are plummeting and the quality of entertainment sinks like a stone, weighed down by the receding interest of Gen-X and millennial audiences in any form of entertainment that takes too long to watch or too much attention to absorb.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one whose fuse was lit in the early 1980s when, within a year of each other, both MTV and USA Today were launched. MTV changed the way movies and TV were made, putting an emphasis on the kind of quick-cutting and visual shorthand that is now pretty standard, in movies, commercials and all other forms of visual media.

USA Today, meanwhile, pushed the notion that, in our busy world, people no longer wanted to read long, incisive stories – they wanted their news in bite-size chunks. In other words, TV news on a printed page.

It’s a vicious circle: If you only give people superficial coverage, that’s what they come to expect – and pretty soon that’s all there is. Two generations have subsequently lost the habit of not only reading in-depth reporting but of reading newspapers, period. And so both are in increasingly short supply.

(I know, I know – the Internet. Newspapers hung themselves with that one, too.)

The point is that we keep doing this to ourselves – and then doing it again. Eventually, you create a population with no tolerance for anything longer than five or 10 minutes – and then what do you have?

We’ve long since passed the tipping point, I’m afraid. Instead of trying to remedy this problem – the way we are trying to address the national epidemic in obesity, say – we find new ways to enable and reinforce the rising wave of attention deficit. Eventually, we will reach the point where our little brains will be spongy and full of holes, like self-induced mad-cow disease.

And we’ll find ourselves in conversations that regularly include this sentence: “I’m sorry – what was I just saying? I wasn’t paying attention.”

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