Grace Dent: Is modern life getting faster and faster?

"Young people are not only more efficient with their use of time, they’re actually more efficient with their attention spans..."

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Time is a very curious business. There’s never enough of it, it waits for no man, it’s a great healer and – as modern life proves – we’re conditioned to expect it in specifically sized chunks. We want our pop ditties in three-minute bursts, our TV in multiples of 30 minutes and our movies somewhere around 90 minutes so our bladders and bum cheeks can cope!

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The time lords who decide what should last for how long are ever present. Yes, we might believe we’re free-thinking spirits, but just try inviting friends to the latest Adam Sandler knockabout romp and then announce it lasts two hours and 50 minutes. Suddenly everyone’s hair will need to be washed that night instead. A small voice in your head is already saying, “That length of time is just not right.”

But where do these odd rules emerge from? For film, it’s a spurious blend of technological reasons, bolshie studio requirements and our attention spans. We may fear that modern life has desiccated our kids brains into fuzzy-headed tweeting, texting, YouTube-clip-guzzling messes, but in cinemaworld this just isn’t the case.

In fact, today’s kids are far more likely to break time conventions and sit in the dark for four hours watching a Peter Jackson epic, than impatient oldies who have dogs to get home to, babysitters to pay and meetings the next day.

In fact, you could argue that although young people still expect a TV soap to last a neat 30 minutes – as was the case in 1970 – they can happily check Facebook and send text messages by identifying quiet, down times in the plot, thus proving that not only are they actually more efficient with their use of time, they’re actually more efficient with their attention spans.

And what about pop songs, in all their three-to four-minute glory? They have never grown any longer, regardless of how, why and where we consume them. That one minute 58 second 1977 barnstormer White Riot by the Clash is still a novelty to our ears and five-minute chunks are still reserved for epic ballads like Someone like You by Adele.

When I think about how a three-minute pop record felt just right in the 80s when I taped the charts in my bedroom, and how it neatly matched my nightclub visits in the 90s – just enough time to have a dance, a flirt – I realise that the reasons aren’t just artistic and technological. They are deeply psychological too. That’s why the generations before me, who huddled round a gramphone to play a wax cylinder single bought from the local bike supply shop, felt precisely the same way.

Is modern life getting faster and faster? I don’t think so. Are our attention spans getting shorter as we dumb down? No. But some experiences remain reassuringly familiar. Time may march on, but lots of things stay exactly, comfortingly the same.

You can hear Grace Dent expand on this subject for 30 minutes on Duration, Duration, Duration on this afternoon at 4:00pm on Radio 4

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