Yesterday La and I managed to farm out all of our kids to various friends’ houses for sleepovers, so we were free to have an evening to ourselves. We started with a company dinner with the gang at Benihana.

Great food, and of course it’s always entertaining to watch the chefs toss eggs into their hats or make a steam engine out of a sliced onion. But that’s not really what this post is about.

After dinner we zipped over to the theater to watch Prince of Persia. It was opening night, so anticipating a big crowd, Laralee had pre-ordered tickets. It turns out we didn’t really need to worry about it– the theater was half-empty.

The movie was entertaining, although not up to the bar of, say, Pirates of the Caribbean. But that’s not really what I’m writing about either.

Of course when the theater says the showtime is 8:10pm, what they really mean is the previews will start at 8:10, and then maybe around 8:30 the actual movie will begin. No matter– previews tend to be fairly entertaining, and with the exception of Guardians of Ga’hoole (oh my word) we’d seen all of them already.

What’s interesting about previews is that back in the day (I’m talking about the 80’s and 90’s) a typical preview would include maybe two or three scenes from the movie, each lasting ten or twenty seconds. Throw in a voiceover and maybe some text, and call it good. But these days, previews mean intense rapid-fire flashes of content– most lasting only a few seconds– interspersed with bright lights, deep bass, or in-your-face taglines. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize characters or even really understand what’s being shown because it’s so fast.

And that brings me to the point of this post.


Back in the early 80’s there was a TV show called Max Headroom whose main character was a guy who’d suffered a motorcycle accident and hit a concrete tunnel that said “Max Headroom” across the top. He somehow became a digital persona who cracked jokes on a computer screen. I’m not sure if I remember all of it right; after all, it was nigh on thirty years ago. But suffice to say it was one of those shows that lasted one season and yet somehow made an indelible imprint on my memory.

Anyway, one of the things the show featured was compressed advertising called blipverts, which were basically thirty-second TV commercials crunched down to five seconds and shown at high speed. The rationale? People don’t want to sit still for a thirty-second ad any more. They want the content right now, and you’d better make it snappy because their attention span wavers after five seconds.

As it turned out, blipverts had a nasty side effect: they caused some viewers to explode. I vaguely recall a scene from the show where a huge guy is sitting on the couch watching TV, and a blipvert comes on, and before you know there’s a dull thump and it he’s all over the walls. Strange stuff.

So here we are, thirty years later, and I can’t help but feel that ol’ Max Headroom wasn’t all that wrong in predicting the five-second attention span of our modern society. It manifests itself quite clearly in movie previews, but also in things like Twitter and texting and even news stories. If content takes more than five or ten seconds to consume, people aren’t interested.

It’s a shame, because that means no one’s interested in reading a long thoughtful essay. Or hearing a politician talk about a platform in any kind of meaningful detail. Or listening to a song that’s longer than five minutes. Or wandering a museum (or a national park) and just soaking up the beauty and the knowledge. And I think all of these things are an important part of being well-rounded, informed, wise citizens of our society. The rising generation seems to want bullet points, sound bites, and 140-word quips about what someone’s having for dinner. Too bad. There’s a lot more out there than blipverts.