Attention deficit culture leaves no room for storyteller
When even the film industry begins to worry about our ability to concentrate, it is time to start worrying.
Identifying what he calls a "snack-culture sensibility", David Kirkpatrick, the former president of Paramount Pictures, has announced a joint venture with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to look at what happens to stories in our restless, digital age.
"How do we make meaningful entertainment for people who cannot focus?" Kirkpatrick asks, launching what will be called The Center for Future Storytelling. "I find I look at a movie now as opposed to feeling it and skim a book rather than read it."
Unusually for a movie executive, this man is saying something rather important. Indeed, it may be more than the making of meaningful entertainment which is now being challenged by the crazed acceleration in the way we acquire and process information.
As a culture, we suffer from attention deficit disorder.
Even watching TV, which rarely requires much concentration, is now a fretful, channel-switching activity.
The MIT project will be looking at ways to revolutionize storytelling so that it will become "more interactive, improvisational and social". Researchers will explore ways in which audiences will not merely read or watch stories, but will participate in them.
So it is not merely a question of the modern brain becoming more easily bored. The key words here are "participate", "interactive" and "social".
A crazed form of democracy, born of moral relativism and new technology, is on the march. At its best, it can be refreshingly egalitarian. On YouTube, the clip of a famous singer appears beside that of someone singing the famous singer's song in his bedroom.
But participants quickly develop a taste for power; interactivity is voracious. Now that some reality TV shows have become joint ventures between those making them and those watching them and voting, anything, as we have recently seen, can happen.
The telling of stories is different. Intrinsically anti-democratic, it requires the suspension of disbelief from its audience. The author is in charge. It is tempting but utterly wrong for film companies and publishers to play lip-service to a brave new interactive world.
The point of a story is that it is the product of one imagination. When that quirky, unpredictable process is surrendered in favour of people power, what is produced quickly loses what had made it worth reading, listening to, or watching -- its individuality.