12th August 2019 by Malcolm Allison
I lived in the US for a couple of years. Enjoyed it enormously. Most things were familiar, a common language tends to do that, but it took a few months to get used to the ADHD television. Cutting from a restaurant scene to an advertisement for a Ford town car, seamlessly, was a little uncomfortable. I lost the plot a couple of times. Sixteen years later, after working in Switzerland and Germany, back in the UK I see this is now common practice here too.
The human brain does not handle several things at once, so the ADHD approach is probably quite an adaptive response to burgeoning content. I don’t know which was the chicken and which the egg, but there is now so much content, and attention spans are getting so short, that it is no wonder news channels are compelled to provide rolling news. Unfortunately, this means they have no time to interrogate the information to present analysis. It feels like only social issues receive any detailed analysis, probably reflecting the weight of social media in content generation.
I wonder if there will be a point at which we grab even less from the flood that is engulfing us. A time when the human brain is not even aware of the individual stimuli within the blur. A time when the continuing flicker of colour and sound becomes a video of life, when we respond only to the change in colour or texture, without engaging any mental process beyond the firing of cells that are responding to the change. Our most primitive brainstem takes over, and we get our pleasure and pain from the electrical impulses, from the neural responses in our ears and eyes, without our cortex getting involved in translating for meaning. We do not understand what is happening, but the lights and sounds soothe us, so we don’t need to worry about lost skills.
I’m taken back to a taxi journey in New York, in the mid-‘80s. We’d flown in, so my friend could take part in a discussion about health projects in Africa. The cross-town cab was the last section of our journey to the UN. My companion recognised that the driver was also from Iran, and I persuaded him to take the risk that he might be SAVAK, and say hello. Soon they were conversing in Farsi, a language so modulated and musical that I didn’t need to understand the words. The tone itself conveyed the pleasure these two gentlemen had in discovering a common heritage, shared memories of the same streets in the same village from 30 years before. My cortex did not comprehend the language, and instead invented a story based on the visual clues I picked up. Perhaps I have already experienced that world where the events don’t count, just the mental abstractions they stimulate.
I hope this doesn’t sound depressing, that was not the intent. Perhaps this descent is unstoppable. Perhaps it reflects the distinction between those who entertain, with their unimaginable privilege and wealth, and those who are entertained. I will never attain that technical club, but I do not want to descend into the mire of those who are entertained. I want to start a club for those who are still interested in a world of reason and strategy, where there is still a concept of truth and person, where knowing why is more important than knowing what. I hope my company can continue to provide absorbing content; content that will be savoured and valued. And I hope we can continue to make a difference – for those who still see this as important.