Human brains which have been alternately addled and enhanced by the machinery of the electronic age are accustomed to limits imposed by time and space.
There probably aren’t many times Elvis Presley and Giacomo Puccini are mentioned in the same sentence. But they did have at least one musical problem in common. By extension, it turns out to be the same problem we all face. Both needed to produce pieces that would last no more than four minutes. That time length was about the limit for the 78-rpm records that were beginning to revolutionize music during Puccini’s lifetime. And so it is thought to be more than an accident that his melodic operas include dozens of arias that would just fit on a 10 or 12 inch disk. For a sample try out the great Tenor aria, Nessun Dorma from the opera Turandot. Among other things, it is a virtual FIFA/World Cup theme song.
To this day the four-minute song remains more or less the standard for music producers guiding a commercial musician into lots of radio airplay. It was a similar kind of brevity that was required on RCA’s smaller new 45-rpm disks that fully launched the pop “single,” and Elvis Presley’s career soon after. Jazz performers might riff on a song for seven or eight minutes. But they would need to wait a few more years for Columbia’s “long playing” record that could handle a solid 25 minutes per side.
Though our preferred media have continued to evolve, the media squeeze on time hasn’t really changed. Brains which have been variously addled and enhanced by the machinery of the electronic age have gotten used to time and space limits imposed by physical and commercial constraints. Music, news, conversations, advertising; it hardly matters. All pop in and out of our lives in rapid succession. And while we can keep shifting our attention to try to accommodate all of this clutter, we have no chance to expand the hours of the day to fit more in.
True, digital media can store and retrieve the largest works of writing and music with ease. Today anyone with an internet connection and even a modest computer also has, by default, a library, a museum, a performing arts theater, and nearly unlimited access to the intellectual output of the world’s cultures.
But we still mostly prefer to stay with the familiar, and with it, the same time and space limitations that our grandparents would have recognized: news articles cut to “short reads,” television journalists given only three minutes to tell a complex story, or expert commentators whose video sound bites still hover at an average of just under ten seconds. And don’t even get us started on Twitter’s measly 140 characters.
What’s a consumer of this cultural maw to do? One response is to try to swim with the tide by becoming perpetual information-grazers. We breeze through media content quickly before moving on to other new enticements. In communication terms, most of us are “peripheral information processors” most of the time. Like restless children moving from toy to toy, there is a constant search for new stimulation. Many advertisers and content providers feel lucky to get even a minimal level of attention. Web sites like this one struggle to hold a reader’s interest, measured by Google as a site’s “bounce rate” and its average “session duration.” (This site averages about two minutes per visit.) Print advertising gets even less time from restless readers. As for traditional television viewing: family members frequently migrate to separate screens. Even so, the remote channel selection button for a family’s 60-inch television is probably the most cherished piece of real estate in a household.
But there are advantages to also swimming against the tide. We arguably gain a great deal by consciously giving up grazing in favor of more purposeful media use. Exchanging breadth for depth usually brings clearer rewards. The goal ought to be to find time for long-form content.
Think of the monumental intellectual and artistic achievements that endure. They are not just arias, but entire operas; also the entire books, symphonies, cinematic masterpieces, epic poems and novels, lectures, paradigm-shifting monographs and essays that keep inviting us back to explore their wonders. These are brain-shifting media forms that challenge and reward in equal measure. Given the ease of access we have to most of these materials, they only await our decision to sometimes forgo the transient for the permanent. We just need the raised consciousness to know when we are wasting our time.