To grow, we have to be able to pay attention, but maybe it doesn’t have to be boring.
Handling kids’ devices has become one of the most difficult challenges for parents, and the COVID lockdowns made it nearly impossible. This isn’t just restricting the amount of time a kid sits in front of a television watching shows. Modern devices are tools of social connection and legitimate information collection. Add in the need to do homework, and even attend class, and it’s impossible to set realistic boundaries, unless a parent wants to outmatch the most-strict parents of fiction.
By way of mild balance, we should remember that every development can come with a silver lining. We can’t know what current trends might be preparing the young to do in the future, even as we older folks don’t really know how to integrate new technology into their development. A century ago, how you were raised was a pretty good guide for how to raise your children. When I was a kid, boredom was pretty difficult to escape.
That field of memory arose reading Bishop Robert Barron writing about old movies and attention spans:
The coming together of daunting length and popularity [in the movie The Ten Commandments] then put me in mind of a number of other examples of this combination from cultural history. In the nineteenth-century, the novels of Charles Dickens were so sought after that ordinary Londoners waited in long lines for chapters as they were published in serial form. And let’s face it: not a lot happens in Dickens novels, by which I mean very few things blow up; there are no alien invasions; no snappy one-liners uttered by the heroes before they blow away the bad guys. For the most part, they consist of lengthy conversations among fascinating and quirky characters. Much the same can be said of the novels and stories of Dostoevsky. Though there is indeed a murder and a police investigation at the heart of the plot of The Brothers Karamazov, for the vast majority of that famous novel, Dostoevsky arranges various characters in drawing rooms for pages and pages and pages of dialogue on matters political, cultural, and religious. During that same period, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of debates on the vexed issue of slavery in America. They spoke for hours at a time—and in an intellectually elevated manner. If you doubt me, look up the texts online. Their audiences were not cultural elites or students of political philosophy, but rather ordinary Illinois farmers, who stood in the mud, gave their full attention, and strained to hear the orators’ unamplified voices. Could you even begin to imagine an American crowd today willing to stand for a comparable length of time and listen to complex presentations on public policy—and for that matter, could you imagine any American politician willing or able to speak at Lincolnian length and depth? Once again, the questions answer themselves.
In fairness, there wasn’t much else to do. People also gathered in the public square to watch executions, after all.
Boredom does have its benefits, of course…. in creativity, in observation of the world around you, in development of attention span. I wonder, though. Bishop Barron finds hope in the popularity of long-form podcasts, and as a constant listener to those, I agree, although I have to admit that I rarely listen to them in one sitting, and I can’t say that’s less desirable from an intellectual point of view. Taking long-form works in small doses like that allows ongoing consideration.
Perhaps short-attention-span media will grow in the same way. Dickens wrote very long works in relatively short installments. I’ve noticed this in blog posts, and such. The ideas develop overtime, and it can be much more participatory for the reader. That may prove more conducive to big ideas… if we can overcome that other problem of refusing to engage with each other in open discussion that sometimes goes awry.
Featured image by Chris Yang on Unsplash.