The Attention Economy and Teacher Talk
(addressed to myself)
In the mythic age was the campfire, where we gathered to hear stories.
I'm reading 'Watership Down', about a mythic tribe of rabbits, each one with a gift, including Dandelion who is the tribe's story teller. They gather in campfire mode, and Dandelion tells a damn fine story.
The story teller has to have a special gift - that's part of the whole campfire genre. We all bother to gather and sit together because the speaker who speaks has something to say and knows how to say it.
Even in mythic times this was the case.
Then came the radio and the television.
Watch the tribe gather around the screen. Look at the first broadcast - black and white, fuzzy image, neighbours gathered to peer through the window.
And it changes everything. For how can 'the best story teller in our tribe' compare to 'the best story teller in our country' or even the world.
Shaun Micallef, Jonathan Ross, or David Letterman didn't get their jobs by being pretty good. They're the best there is. If they weren't the best, someone else would get their job.
The moment we had radio and television, the standard for campfire storytelling went into the stratosphere, because technology beamed the best stories right into our laps.
Zoom out to the media in general: storytelling is perfected to virtuosity in the advertising industry, whose magicians can engineer that goes right to marrow of your identity as mother, father, cool kid, adventurer, and links it to some plastic watch or washing powder, all in 15 seconds and in competition for our attention with our loved ones, who want to talk to us during the ad-break.
Decades of media expertise, and decades of media-literacy.
Watch as time speeds up and the tapestry condenses in sophistication, with layers of nuance and irony.
Compare the pace and complexity of this 60s show My Three Sons:
to this 80s show Family Ties
And this 90s show 'The Simpsons'
We could talk all day about The Simpsons, with its playfulness, ironies, and deliberate contradictions. The show frequently re-frames itself, as if 'story' were an elastic band and the Simpsons was trying to stretch and tangle its fabric.
And now, at last, to the Internet, where I have 'CAMPFIRE-ON-DEMAND'. Watch me, as I wash up each evening, iPad propped against the windowsill, listening to brightest minds in the world paint dazzlingly optimistic visions of the future on TED.com. To attend TED conferences costs a fortune and is by invitation only, but not to worry, these virtuosic meaning makers will sit at YOUR campfire at YOUR time, at the click of a button.
In fact, no matter what field interests me, via the internet I can find the most charismatic, insightful, and entertaining speaker on topic within seconds.
School kids have never known differently, and their amazing minds have adapted to thrive in a hyper-stimulated, shape-shifting world, where a year is a decade, and tomorrow's technology is old by Sunday. They stand at the nexus of physical space, digital space, virtual space, ready and instinctively equipped for an age where industries boom and go extinct, and frenzied improvisation saves the day, again and again, in the nick of time.
And then, teacher, you gather your students into your classroom space, ask them to sit, to face you, and to listen.
SIT STILL JOHNNY.
HOW DARE YOU BE SO RUDE.
And later, in the staffroom, to a colleague: THIS GENERATION HAS LOST THEIR SENSE OF RESPECT. THEY HAVE NO ATTENTION SPAN. THEY ARE UNABLE TO LISTEN.
Nay, teacher, you are unable to speak.
Teacher-talk in the age of the attention economy?
If you're going do ANY of it, EVER, you better do a bloody good job.
It better be brief: not a second longer than it needs to be.
It better be brilliant: someone else has done it better.
It better be supremely relevant to the moment: savvy kids can pull the information on demand.
And if you do not heed this warning, and you speak, and they look miserable, or anaesthetised; if they wave to passers-by out the classroom window, or write notes, or play tricks, or simply sit still, head lolling in a coma, and fail to respond to your absurd "Ok do you understand?"
Then blame yourself.
And maybe get a job as a prison officer.