Sunday, April 27, 2008

Our attention span hasn't changed. Has anything?

Originally published Sept. 1996

It's unavoidable these days. Everywhere you look or listen, someone is singing the moral decay blues. Our cities are jungles, our streets; unsafe, our leaders; corrupt, our institutions; floundering, classic authority has run amok and the future no longer holds the bright certainty of generations past. If it all feels a bit surreal, as though you're stuck in some bad Rod Serling nightmare, maybe it is and you are.
Turn off the TV and go outside!

The real thing, for those who can vaguely recall it, is about the teeming millions of people who get up everyday and go to sleep each night without lying, cheating or stealing. We don't go into meltdown and decide to go on a killing spree. We are neither perpetrator nor victim. We are simply people, trying to do the best that we can. We dwarf society's black sheep by an overwhelming number. What we see as moral decay is, in actuality, the result of our absence in the equation. It isn't about us, but we are being told that it could have been.

What we are interpreting as a reflection of our lives and our society is largely about people who could be us, but aren't. The abnormal is presented, without disclaimers, as the norm for us all. Without an accompanying exchange of money or even our conscious agreement, we have bought the product, which is fear. Fear justifies ever increasing expenditures to protect us from the abnormal, and redoubled efforts by the media to bring it to us live.

Recently, a growing group have been walking the streets. To say that they are reclaiming or "taking back" our streets, implies that, at some point, we gave them away. When we left them for the comforting glow of a cathode ray tube and the images it displayed, I suppose we did. While the technology improved and evolved, and the producers sought better ways to draw and hold our attention, we assumed that everything would remain as we left it.

What I have noticed on the walks is that the streets are not so much filled with crime and criminals, as empty space. People, especially groups of people, are a rare find. A moving group of people, stretching nearly a block, is able to walk down the sidewalks and few, if any, people in the neighborhood are even aware of their presence. The walks are mostly symbolic. After they pass, the streets are empty once again.

This doesn't diminish the importance or need for the walks. Rather it calls on those who wish their block were more neighborly to fill the void and support the walkers. We can light the void with sodium vapor lights to drive out the darkness, but it only illuminates the emptiness. We can hope that someone is watching, but unless we check, we can't be sure. If we check, then we'll be watching. If neighbors meet, they can watch together and engage in interactive exchanges of information. If that catches on the emptiness will evaporate.

Interactive communication is technology's goal and millions of people are eagerly awaiting the next generation. If you believe the advance billing, in the very near future, technology will give us back what we left behind. Of course, it will be a cheap imitation of what once was and will leave the empty space intact, but it's better than nothing?

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