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With the attention span of a gnat

When I was a child, dear reader, we had at most two TV channels. (No, it wasn’t black & white, I’m not that old…) In some parts of Sweden, the two Swedish channels were augmented by the Danish single channel. In others, one could peek at Norwegian TV. In the far north, the Finnish channel offered variation. (Woohoo! In an incomprehensible language…) Whatever the case, wherever you lived there were maximum three channels. The viewers were, to some extent, hostages to the educational and political purposes of the TV-makers. If there are no options, watching a documentary about World War II in the Baltic States can be quite intriguing, as can the two-hour programme depicting the history of the Swedish Social Democrat party. (No, we were not being force-fed. Swedish TV is a democratic institution and would therefore just as likely show a documentary about the industrial bigwigs as about the political party in power)

If the powers that were decided to show anything in English, chances were that this would be a British “quality production” where polished gentlemen detectives (think Dalgleish) solved complicated murders without ever becoming ruffled. To this day, Swedish people have a particular fondness for British series – Emmerdale Farm has been as much an institution in our lives as in that of British people…

In retrospect, this narrow selection made us all a bit more educated. Good at English, as the British shows were subtitled, not dubbed. Somewhat more knowledgeable about the world that surrounded us. Quite opinionated, which is why Swedish people so totally boycotted produce from apartheid South Africa, or why we staged loud protests against Pinochet in Chile. It felt good to exercise that world conscience most of us toted about, all of us quite convinced that we lived in the best of worlds, namely the egalitarian paradise named Sweden.

In the eighties, Swedish Television decided to broadcast Dallas. Life in Sweden was never the same again. Gone was the yearning for good black&white documentaries, for world peace and democratic processes. Instead, we hungered for anything American, preferably starring women with lots and lots of hair and men who swaggered and exuded self-confidence. You see, that is the conundrum that is Sweden; on the one hand a proud and very independent nation that believes we’ve cracked the code to the good life by ensuring all our citizens get affordable dental and medical care, free university education and generous parental leaves. On the other hand, a nation that can never get enough of dazzle and glamour, still somewhat enamoured by the dream of the good life in America (well, basically anywhere else but Sweden – as long as it is warm and has palm trees).

These days, viewers are bombarded with a selection of channels. Just flipping through them gives me a sore thumb, and I don’t even have them all. What I do notice, though, is that almost all channels offer similar infotainment fare. No in-depth documentary, instead it’s American Idol, a host of crime shows, an even larger selection of soaps, and an endless supply of rather inane entertainment shows.

Obviously, we get what we want, and apparently most viewers do not want to be made to think. We prefer slouching on the sofa, feet propped on the coffee table, as we watch a sequence of entirely inter-changeable shows, all of them defined by starring people with very white teeth, perfectly coiffed hair and toned bodies. Bleh. Double bleh. (Which is why I rarely watch television these days)

Just goes to prove that those old Romans had it right, didn’t they? Give the people bread and circus, and they’ll not worry overmuch about other matters such as politics and human rights. And seriously, people, isn’t that exactly what is happening? With the exception of that glowing minority which always exists, no matter culture or period in time, that elite of erudite people who never compromise when it comes to value and integrity, we seem to be evolving into uninterested ego-centred beings. The selection on TV isn’t helping (and may I just stop to say that there are exceptions; thank you for shows such as House of Cards, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones) Nor is the present development in news reporting, where it’s one punchy headline after the other, rarely accompanied by an in-depth analysis. Of course not: most of us can no longer be bothered to read about the background to the Israel/Gaza conlict, or the emergence of IS. We conclude, based on six words strung together by a snazzy wordsmith, that the truth is this or that. Guess what: the truth is far more complex, and politics and conflicts requires hundreds upon hundreds of words to set into context.

So where does all this leave us?
First of all, it makes us uninformed.
Secondly, it makes us surprisingly easy to misinform.
Thirdly, it makes us shallow – extremely shallow, having no understanding of context, and not caring overmuch to begin with.

People who are uninformed, misinformed and shallow are scarily easy to manipulate. If we’re not careful, soon enough we’ll stand tightly packed in town squares and roar our approbation as one savvy character or the other explains that all our woes are due to the XX (read as you wish: Muslims, Jews, red-headed people, Norwegian Oil companies, pygmy cannibals, men in pin-striped suits…)  Ring a bell anyone? Does it bring to mind a certain person with a distinctive mustache? Sheesh, I forgot: no it doesn’t, not anymore – after all, who ever bothers with stuff like history and analysis anymore?

Humans have great intellectual capacity. Humans are also per definition lazy creatures who like maximum output on minimum of effort. Let’s just be careful our inherent laziness does not result in the rather depressing title of this post – after all, who wants to be a gnat? And even worse, a MANIPULATED gnat.

11 thoughts on “With the attention span of a gnat”

  1. Gotta laugh. Sorry, didn’t mean to be mean, but that sort of thing is standard for the States now. I grew up literate and *involved” because 1. no TV, and 2. radio was AFTER I did my homework, both in grade school and high school. In college, I was”driven” and rigidly studied engineering to a schedule. If I had a 15-minute break, I may have watched TV, but it was turned off at the 15 minute beep. I kept up with the news, but over the years, news reporters became commentators and opinionated. The bulk of TV is , to be gentle, sad! There are probably about 6 shows I follow when I can.And you are certainly correct about the herd mentality of the uninformed. I find it both sad and scary. I’m 81 and rather sad to see the world my grandkids are going into.

  2. When I was a teenager in San Diego, my father and I had a tv in the kitchen–where we cloistered ourselves to watch drama on Playhouse 90. It is where I met Robert Redford, John Cassavetes (for whom I still grieve) his wife Genna Rowlands, Eva Marie Saint and LeeJ.Cobb, Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, etc. Ihaveno ideawhat te rest of the family was watching in the living room,. If it had canned laughter, I would run through the room with my fingers in my ear. My point was, in the 50’s and early 60’s there was television for people with brains. We have not owned one since 2008 which is why I do not suffer major brain drain. And as for television as a source of news,God save us all.

  3. Amen to that… unfortunately, the radio and newspapers aren’t exactly the greatest source for news either these days. Everything is simplified, made black and white, and only certain newspapers/magazines truly challenge that grey matter all of us have plenty of – which is why The Economist is always on my nightstand…

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