When even the film industry begins to worry about our ability to concentrate, it is time to start worrying. Identifying what he calls a "snack-culture sensibility", David Kirkpatrick, the former president of Paramount Pictures, has announced a joint venture with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to look at what happens to stories in our restless, digital age.
"How do we make meaningful entertainment for people who cannot focus?" Kirkpatrick asks, launching what will be called The Center for Future Storytelling. "I find I look at a movie now as opposed to feeling it and skim a book rather than read it."
Unusually for a movie executive, this man is saying something rather important. Indeed, it may be more than the making of meaningful entertainment which is now being challenged by the crazed acceleration in the way we acquire and process information.
As a culture, we suffer from attention deficit disorder. The business of reading – not merely catching the author's drift and then moving on, but enjoying the prose, allowing the imagination to be caught up in the narrative – has become tougher than it once was, so habituated are our brains to skittering across the surface of things.
Even watching TV, which rarely requires much concentration, is now a fretful, channel-switching activity; to our fidgety modern natures, it somehow feels more productive to sample several programmes rather than surrender entirely to one.
The MIT project will be looking at ways to revolutionise storytelling so that it will become "more interactive, improvisational and social". Researchers will explore ways in which audiences of the future will not merely read or watch stories, but will participate in them.
So it is not merely a question of the modern brain becoming more easily bored. The key words here are "participate", "interactive" and "social", and they are not as warm, fuzzy and harmless as they may appear.
A crazed form of democracy, born of moral relativism and new technology, is on the march. At its best, it can be refreshingly egalitarian. On YouTube, the clip of a famous singer appears beside that of someone singing the famous singer's song in his bedroom. Blogging gives a voice to millions. The chance to tell stories online has released a muddy torrent of fiction.
But participants quickly develop a taste for power; interactivity is voracious. Now that some reality TV shows have become joint ventures between those making them and those watching them and voting, anything, as we have recently seen, can happen.
The telling of stories is different. Intrinsically anti-democratic, it requires the suspension of disbelief, a willing surrender of the imagination, from its audience. Stories can go in all sorts of odd directions, but one thing never changes. It is not a team event. The author is in charge.
It is tempting but utterly wrong-headed for film companies and publishers to play lip-service to a brave new interactive world in which everyone is a participant and the most important aspect of any project is that it is a shared social experience.
The point of a story (and even of an essay or written argument) is that it is the product one imagination, one brain. When that quirky, unpredictable process is surrendered in favour of a misguided form of people power, what is produced quickly loses what had made it worth reading, listening to, or watching – its individuality.Reuse content