The Atlantic, an East coast monthly magazine focused on political science (arguably as big a contradiction in terms as ‘military intelligence’) has a beautifully written article in the current issue titled ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?”. On the cover they spell it ‘Stoopid’ which seems more apt. The thrust of the piece is that Google and its ilk have forced us to reduce our attention spans to the point where the writer says he can longer read a book. He exists solely on news snippets. Sad.
But there’s more than a smidgeon of truth in this piece. Deal with anyone these days, not just young people – anyone – and chances are you will find that attention spans have indeed fallen. Communicate in monosyllabic grunts and you get what you want. Ask politely and make some small talk and you are switched off by the listener. Efficiency has relegated decorum to a back seat.
But you and I are guilty, too. You are reading one thing on the screen then ‘ping’, the machine announces an email and you dutifully jump into email at the computer’s bidding. What you were reading fades forever from memory. I can only hope that you were not reading this when that email arrived ….
Do the same symptoms affect photography? I think the answer must be a resounding ‘Yes’. As one example look at the demise of the photographic print. Why pay for something large, static and unwieldy when you can zap into it with a few clicks and look at it for 2 seconds on that miserable screen attached to your computer? You move on, the image as forgotten as that article interrupted by the email ping. You tell yourself that you are using time effectively where, in fact, you are wasting it horribly by flitting between incomplete tasks, nothing learned.
Here’s a snap I took back in the ’70s – unconsciously reflecting the surrealism of Cartier-Bresson with whom I was besotted at the time:
Speakers’ Corner. Leica M3, 35mm Summaron, TriX/D76
Appearances apart, there was very little unplanned about this picture, whose goal was to show political isolation and passivity. The flag’s position is no accident – I waited for the moment; the chap on the grass was in no hurry, after all. The London pigeon was a stroke of luck (missing from the other snap of the same subject taken that day), it’s true, and maybe adds to the overall effect, but the point of the picture is not readily grasped in a two second glance. It rewards thought.
Now open your favorite news magazine and this is what you will see:
Today’s news snippets
These are actually incredible events, all three. The nation’s highest court has just slapped down the President on constitutional grounds (you or I would be in the slammer for like behavior), yesterday’s prima ballerina at a leading Wall Street brokerage is now no more and the guy in charge of our largest bank has just closed the business he got over $150mm for a year ago en route to the executive suite of the buyer. All major, earth shattering, news events yet most will scan the above , shrug and move on. There are lessons here about hubris, corruption, power, politics, perception, strategic skill and on and on. So much to be learned. Yet the word on Wall Street has it that “…the broad at Lehman got whacked”. No analysis. No opinions. Just the facts, ma’am. No time for discussion. Get to the bottom line.
And while I grew up on Wall Street and have mostly good things to say about it (Greed is Good) I rue the days before Google for they seemed, to me, a more civilized time. Back then you repaired to Harry’s Bar after a tough day for conversation and conviviality. Now you get on the Internet. We no longer pause to sniff the flowers, we merely ask the price.
So does that obsolete the wall mounted photographic print? For many, I’m afraid the answer is ‘Yes’.
But they are not my audience and, if you read these columns, they are not yours either, for I cannot imagine my world without the luxury of time to stop and gaze at a beautiful photograph.