A New York Minute

I thoroughly enjoy reading Sports Illustrated and have done for years. It is well written, timely, and insightful. I nearly always find food for thought as I am interested in sports and the numerous scandals that surround professional sports that I have myself written about and which SI always covers in depth. In the most recent issue, the editor holds forth on the short attention span of the American sporting public. No sooner have we experienced Tibomania than we are bored and move on to Linmania, which lasts until Jeremy Lin has a couple of bad games. This is assuredly true, though the exception is the sporting public’s fascination with Tiger Woods. But this exception simply proves the general rule. The editorial also provided the following gem, which has larger implications:

“Our culture moves at warp speed, no question, the weekly or even daily news cycle long since replaced by an up-to-the-second Twitter feed or Facebook update. We said goodbye to thoughtful consideration the day we moved over to microwave popcorn — because who could possibly wait for the stove-top variety. That’s our reality.”

The phrase I want to focus on is “we said goodbye to thoughtful consideration…” That does seem to sum up one of the salient facts about our culture. Not only do we have a short attention span that requires snippets rather than lengthy explanations, we also want our news to be entertaining and we also cannot stay focused on the latest sensation long enough to savor it fully. That is a shame. And it says a lot about us as a people. Teachers are finding it out about their pupils in the classroom and newspaper editors are finding it out about their shrinking readership. We want what we want in small, easily digested thought-bites and we want it now. We don’t relish the uncertainty of anticipation even though it increases delight. We cannot focus on an issue long enough to probe its depths and discover its hidden meanings. In a word, we cannot pause and think about things because our attention is brief and shallow.

It has been known for some time that kids need “down time,” a time when nothing is scheduled and they can simply be by themselves with nothing particular to do. I have always felt that adults need that as well, though I have never seen anyone make this claim. I know I prize my down time — which the Greeks called “leisure” and put a high price upon. It is a time when a person can be most creative, most productive. I find it in abundance as a retired person in the small town I am lucky enough to live in, where I am out of the “loop” and the world seems to go by in slow-motion. But not everyone is as lucky, and things seem to happen to most of us in too much of a hurry for us to assimilate what is going on. Thus frenzy replaces leisure. And this is the problem.

One of the things Victorian writers like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope worried about with the coming of the steam engine in the nineteenth century was precisely this: the pace of life would now becomes so fast that we would no longer have time to digest what is happening to us, to thoroughly enjoy the moment and discover what it really means. These writers never imagined the jet age, of course, and were not around to see the microwave replace the oven. But they knew what they were talking about. We have become a “me-here-now” culture that demands immediate satisfaction and doesn’t have time to stop and think. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be able to imagine the consequences of our actions or plan ahead. Our focus on the immediate present seems to have cost us our imagination, though part of that loss must be attributable to a media industry that is prone to overkill. In any event, we have  indeed “said goodbye to thoughtful consideration.” The payoff is predictable: anxiety blended with mistakes resulting from lack of foresight. These are certainly two of the most obvious symptoms of our age.

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