T Sale's Blog

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Long and the Short of It

A couple of recent newspaper articles emphasized for me the accelerating pace of society. First, “Board-game Makers Heed Call to Streamline Products” explained how companies like Hasbro, Inc., in response to parent requests, are adapting board games such as Monopoly and Life so that they can be played in 20 minutes or so, because kids won’t sit still for longer time spans. The second article, “The Future of Radio: More Songs in Less Time?”, was about a guy in Dallas who’s been editing popular songs down to two and a half minutes so that more will fit into a two hour radio show. Supposedly, the careful editing retains all the “familiar” parts of the songs so that listeners won’t even realize their favorite songs have been shortened.

Like so many things in the news recently, these tidbits seem anathema to the pace at which I’ve become accustomed to live my life. I fondly remember marathon games of Monopoly that lasted late into the night, until the last desperate opponent was finally bankrupt, and games of Risk that saw little yellow wooden tokens spreading out across the world and then being driven back into some island stronghold, only to gain new strength and repel the green invaders one more time, thus prolonging games not just for hours but for days. And I remember how my friends and I distained the AM radio stations that played shortened versions of songs like “Light My Fire” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and sought out the FM stations that not only played the “long versions,” but also played whole album sides while the DJs napped or possibly indulged in some unsanctioned activities. (On a side note, I recently heard a sampling of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” on a TV bank commercial, which was much shorter than 2:30, and “Light My Fire” in the dentist’s office – signs of either the pervasive impact of the baby boomers on society, or of the trivialization of songs we once held sacred, take your pick.)

News about the compression of activities also makes me wonder about the effect on how we teach students. Years ago I adapted my plans for sophomores so that I do no fewer than three activities in a 57 minute class, rather than try to retain their attention for the whole span. Do I need to start planning 5 or 6 activities? I wonder about the sustained concentration on an idea that I have always presumed to be important for deep understanding of a topic. I imagine people like Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein contemplating an apparatus or an equation for hours on end until they had their epiphany of invention. Is the prevalent pace of society making that expectation an impossibility? But maybe I’m misguided; maybe guys like Edison and Einstein were multi-taskers whose minds raced from topic to topic at a breakneck pace, and their accomplishments were the result of thinking and walking and talking and veering from idea to idea. Still, it’s hard for me to shift the paradigm that it’s nearly impossible to understand tough ideas unless you concentrate and stick with it.

I asked myself, do kids today concentrate and persist at anything? The answer, of course, is yes. How long do Halo players sit in front of the tube wielding their joysticks? How long do your kids spend on AOL, chatting with four or five friends at once? How long does it take to watch a dozen YouTube clips in a row? Even in the academic setting, I’ve had classes maintain a discussion for 45 minutes (if the topic is engaging enough, and often as long as it has nothing to do with the subject matter). Of course, while teenagers (and older folks) are enthralled with these activities, they are not doing what English teachers traditionally hope they’ll do – say, read a 400 page novel. What’s the difference between fighting your way through 7 levels of Halo and fighting your way through 200 pages of Fahrenheit 451? You could list all the bells and whistles and popups on the Web, but what I realized is: it’s interactive. If you attend to Halo, you get a response. If you message your friend on AOL, you get an answer. If you offer an idea in discussion, someone has a comeback. You can keep going for a long time if your existence is continually acknowledged.

Of course, we try to convince kids that reading is interactive. You should be making pictures in your minds, we tell them. You should write a sticky note when you encounter an interesting idea, we tell them. Be an active reader. Interact with the text. And some do, though when kids do confess to actually reading, they tell me that they hate to do sticky notes because it interrupts the flow of the story. (I love to hear that because (1) it means they are actually reading and (2) their minds must be engaged if they don’t want to stop.) But the truth is that, even for those kids, the book just sits there. We complain that kids have no imagination, that they have no discipline, but can you blame them, when there are so many more stimulating and rewarding alternatives?

But what if…

What if novels were presented in a digital format that allowed readers to truly interact with the text in real time? What if they could literally talk to it and write to it and click on it to make it change color or link to a related web site? And what if the text would respond? What if, when you wondered why an author killed off a certain character, you could click on the scene and the author would tell you in a video clip? What if, when you asked a question about a passage, someone else who had read or was reading the book would respond to you in a previously recorded or real-time comment? What if, when you wondered what would have happened to Montag if Clarisse hadn’t disappeared early in the book, you could embed your ideas into a link in the text and thus make them available to future readers? What if you didn’t have to turn away from the text to peel off a sticky note?

Naturally, the technology to achieve all these “what ifs” exists now and has existed for a while; it just hasn’t been applied to many fictional or “literary” texts. I have no doubt the day will come. Reading, which has always been a solitary activity, could well become a communal one. Authors might enjoy the kind of feedback enjoyed by storytellers of yore. One imagines 21st century groundlings throwing digital tomatoes at some modern Shakespeare. Perhaps when this is possible on a regular basis, teenagers, who are used to being connected and interactive, will rediscover the joy of reading.

Still, I can’t help thinking there’s something to be said for staring off into space after you read an especially descriptive or thought provoking passage and letting your solitary mind play with the words and images. There’s merit to having to mull over a difficult idea on your own, rather than having the answer at your fingertips. There’s a special creative genesis that occurs when the scraps you’ve collected gestate in the primordial cauldron of your mind. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe constant stimulation with no quarter is a better environment for creative thought. Maybe ten different pop songs will ring more bells than a 20 minute Jimmy Page guitar solo. Maybe more short Monopoly games will give me a better chance to be a winner.