‘Culture is the formation of attention’ – Simone Weil
One of the things that is changing most dramatically in the way that people now experience art and culture online is the amount of time they are prepared to commit to it. The Web, because of its interconnectedness and its vastness, makes it easy to move from one thing to the next, to compare and contrast, to graze from one site to another, to another, to another. It does not make it easy to concentrate on just one thing for long periods of time. The on-demand model of content distribution and the box-set have removed the need to wait for anything. There’s no need to go through a whole week waiting for the next instalment, no need to delay your gratification. You can have it now. And why shouldn’t you?
And of course protesting that it is just good for the soul to have to wait occasionally is a feeble argument. But if I cannot wait, if I cannot bear the suspense, or resist the temptation, does that mean that I will no longer be able to commit myself to something that might take a long time to unfold? Does it mean that I will be less prepared to make the investment in a novel or a thesis, or something that requires sustained attention? And will there ever be, therefore, online texts or narratives that can sustain that same degree of concentration, that can hold me for as long as a good book? Until there are, perhaps we cannot really speak of an online culture. We have learned to invest effort in reading long novels or watching feature-length films or visiting exhibitions at least partly because we have been taught that it is worth putting in that effort, going through the pain barrier, for the sophisticated rewards we get from these cultural experiences.
I was reading Matt Locke’s blog over on Storythings when this question really came into sharper focus. Or rather these questions, because there are at least two: how do you grab people’s attention? and once you’ve got it, how do you hold onto it? I think the first question is much easier to answer, and has been addressed in various ways by marketers, promoters, experts in social media and advertising and so on. You can quite easily (assuming you have money or access to ‘celebrities’ or other influencers) get people interested in something. But in order to sustain their interest for a long time, in an online narrative or work of art, there are many different considerations, most of which haven’t yet been fully understood.
Anything that is online has to hold its own against the galaxy of other sites, links, videos and nuggets of information that are just a click away. The competition for attention is overwhelming. And yet people do devote long periods of time online to gaming, playing in virtual worlds and artificial environments, and so on.
A great novel holds our attention for all kinds of reasons, reasons that are very complex, some to do with structure and plot, some to do with voice and character, some to do with what Wallace Stevens called ‘the surface of things’, and so on…. We want to find out what happens next, but we also simply enjoy entering the imaginative world of the story and deepening our relationship with the characters. The writer has learnt how to enthral us, drawing on a huge tradition of literary works that demonstrate what can and can’t be done, what works and what doesn’t.
I think the anxiety I feel about this is a misplaced anxiety, for much the same reason that the anxiety about the possible death of print (much overblown) is misplaced. It is misplaced because I am expecting the same thing from the internet as I get from books and other existing cultural forms – the exhibition, the feature film, the concert. I have got over the future-shock of disruption, but I am still trapped by nostalgia. The fully-realised forms of artistic work that the internet will allow have not been created yet. The thing that I am worrying about is in fact this reluctance to let go of the cultural expectations that I have grown up with. I want novels because that is what I am used to. There is a distictive pleasure in a novel that I do not want to relinquish. And, more than that, I want it to be preserved so that other people will enjoy it, too.
I don’t think there’s any real danger of the novel dying out as a form of storytelling in the near future. For me it does serve some particular need that I have to experience a story in a particular way (and the rapid growth in ebook sales seems to confirm that there’s really no end in sight for ‘long-form’ writing just yet). I relish the well-crafted sentence. It is too deep now for me to break or forget that addiction. It is sensual. I have trained myself to read novels. The question I should be asking, though, is more like this: ‘will the internet provide new ways of telling stories that can capture my attention and hold it for long periods, and which provide similar cultural rewards and pleasures to those of a well written novel, or a play, or an exhibition of paintings or sculptures?’
I have an enormous confidence that it will, in time, do just that. But in order for the artists who will make those works to invent their new stories, or their new installations or images, they will have to free themselves of the expectations and the conventions of the existing forms. Or at least they will need to understand how those conventions and expectations can be adapted to these new kinds of work. Perhaps the ‘novels’ of the future are really going to be much more like video games, in terms of their presentation, but they will be marked by the knowledge of writers about characters, stories, speech, relationships, and so on. Instead of the kinds of games we have now, things like Grand Theft Auto or even LA Noire, we will see more work like Dear Esther, by Dan Pinchbeck.
And perhaps one day soon writers will really start to see how stories can be told in a way that links many different sites, platforms and media all together, in a web rather than a teleologically straight line. These stories, perhaps inspired by the ‘Garden of Forking Paths’, will start to make full use of the networked, immersive nature of the Web, to understand its grammar. In fact, this process has already begun, the first steps have been taken, and we get closer and closer to the moment when the first great storyteller of the internet emerges. It may even have happened already, known to some small coterie or network of friends or admirers, but not yet broken through to a wider audience and consciousness.
I do know this: when those stories start to arrive I won’t be able to put them down. And I will start to overcome my baseless fears about the death of the novel.
Update – I was re-reading this post yesterday and it occurred to me that I hadn’t properly developed one of the central points I was trying to make. In retrospect it seemed to be staring me in the face. I said that the internet is full of distractions, which makes it harder to concentrate on one individual story. But what I didn’t go on to say, and should have, is that that implies that in order successfully to hold a reader’s attention, online stories may have to cut the reader off from those distractions. Or rather, shutting out some of those distractions puts the storyteller at an advantage when it comes to holding the attention online.
Try watching a show on iPlayer (it actually works even better on ITVplayer, but that’s so buggy I don’t want to put you through it) in the normal/windowed player. Now try watching it in full screen. This isn’t rocket science, by any means, but it just becomes very clear how the experience of paying attention to content within a frame, within a page, within a tab, within a browser window, which may also have many other tabs open at the same time, is very different from watching it when it’s all there is to look at.
Apple seems to be moving ever closer to the edge-to-edge approach with its screens, removing or shrinking the bezel at the edge of the glass so that all you can see is the film, or the photo, or the app you are working in. They did this with the transition from Quicktime 7 to Quicktime X (incidentally culling several advanced and useful features at the same time). But the point is Apple has understood that if you want people to become engrossed in something, you have to make that the only thing they can see, or hear, or touch. (I wonder, idly – and does one ever wonder in any other adverbial way? – whether it is this single consideration, this desire for pristine, immersive visual presentation, above all others, that was the genesis of the iPad and continues to drive the development of iOS? Who knows?).
So although I think the very best stories will always hold their own, always grip us and draw us in, we make it a lot easier for them to capture our full attentions if we also block out the surrounding noise, hide the forking paths that our browsers hold open for us, leading perhaps to something just a little bit more exciting, or more tempting, or greener.