Tag Archives: media distractions

Resolutions for Better Communication

                                                            Denver Colorado’s Civic Center

It’s time for the annual ritual of making promises to ourselves about what we will change in the coming year.  In that spirit, consider a few resolutions that would make us and those we care about better communication partners. 

  • Resolve to be a better listener.

    Becoming an engaged listener is like losing weight: it’s harder than it sounds.  It requires momentarily giving ourselves over to what another is saying.  That must include minimizing other distractions, turning off the far too loquacious chatterbox camped out in our brains, and accepting the challenge of bringing our full attention to another. We can’t do this with everyone all the time.  Listening for nuance is work.  Start with the people that matter most.

  • Protect your soul by deciding to be a more thoughtful gatekeeper and information consumer.

    We allow a lot of worthless messages into our lives:  junk journalism, junk advertising, aimless web-browsing, mean-spirited trolls and the self-obsessed. As tech writer Farhad Manjoo noted last year in the New York Times, the Internet is “loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly.”  It “now seems to be on constant boil.”   So it takes far more personal discipline to keep this stuff at bay and to hold on to our social equilibrium.

    The key is to stay in the discursive world of long-form discourse as much as possible, spending time on articles rather than tweets, in-depth journalism instead of ‘news summaries,’ films in place of youtube videos.

  • Work to put a reasonable limit on the time your children spend with all kinds of screens.

    The American Pediatric Association recommends that children under two spend no time in front of screens.  They need more interactivity as they begin to grow.  Remember that “virtual reality” is a desert compared to the natural world.  Rediscover local parks or just the simple pleasures of a walk around the block.  With my own grandkids it’s been fun to relearn the truth that even young children are naturally weatherized.  Most love to be out and active even in the cold.

  • Resolve to save important feelings and information for face to face discussion.

    Proximity with others usually brings out the best in us.  Media that act as surrogates for ourselves (even misnamed “social” media) offer only selected approximations of the real deal.

  • Listen to more music.

    Because it’s almost exclusively the language of feeling, music unites us in ways that ordinary rhetoric can’t.  A friend reports that Mozart has been a nice escape from the numbing effects of recent political news.

  • Help seniors take a break from television news.

    We have convincing research that many older Americans succumb to a deep and unhealthy pessimism fed by too much news and mayhem. Television is often how they pass the time, especially if they live in a facility.  Do what you can to show them the more normal world outside their door.

  • Don’t believe everything you read.

    Apply some healthy skepticism to both real news stories, as well as the paid “clickbait” stories that are often nearby.  In 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that too many Americans form attitudes from conjecture and misinformation, often from low-credibility sources.

  • With the possible exception of those strange relatives up in Duluth, resist dividing the world into “us” and “them.”

    We may think in simple binaries.  But In the end, the complexities of individual lives will always deal the deck that we and others have to play.  Even after this brutal presidential election we need to find the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the inadequacies of our labels.

                    Happy Holidays!

The Disciplined Consumer

A Presley “45”           wikipedia.org

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.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu