Here's the deal with the '90s: Satellite technology, cable television, and global computer networks combine to create an exponential rise in information and entertainment options. Modern work habits create less free time. How do crafty Americans deal with this conundrum? Simple. Kill our attention spans.
Oh sure, things started out innocently enough back in the sweet, gauzy early days of the decade. The entire nation fixed its gaze firmly on the same TV program (CNN's "Gulf War Show"). We were led by a president who could talk for hours in a single fractious sentence and manage to say nothing whatsoever. And that was OK with us. But as technology advanced and the global community bound itself closer together, there emerged evermore distractions. Both "The Gulf War Show" and the Bush presidency were canceled. We surfed off to other channels and traded in the president for a newer, considerably more exciting model. (Though in keeping with the decade's devotion to recycling, the Gulf War has been revived semi-annually and Bush offspring are being promoted for president.)
As the '90s got longer in the tooth, political debate shrank to the length of a 30-second TV spot. Campaign ads became shorter, more reactive, and so quickly produced that we often saw the response ad before we ever knew what it was responding to. Politics was moving fast, and so was our attention. The plodding monotone of Bob Dole was not a viable option in the land of the easily distracted.
On television, the persistence of talking on talk shows made us fidgety. Phil Donahue was jettisoned in favor of programs that focused on the hurling of furniture. New, faster-paced "reality" series gave us footage of animals attacking police chases and the like. While the '90s began with only 30 or so cable channels on our local service, we soon had twice that many, allowing us to cut the time spent pausing at each channel from 3 seconds to 1.5. Recognizing our attention deficit, Hollywood offered us big-budget fare that dispensed with the tedium of plot lines and character development in order to rely on the dramaturgical power of explosions. As in, "I'm getting too old for this sh—(Ka-BOOM!)." All payoff, no boring buildup.
Then, just when it seemed we could get no more distracted, everyone went online. Even reading became an exercise in inattention as every Web page encouraged us to "click through" to a hundred other places. Kids today wouldn't believe how it was before the Internet. The lengths people had to go to for their wacko conspiracy theories, sports scores, and dirty pictures. Frequently it involved patience or even leaving the house! And before e-mail came along, we would have to form coherent thoughts into "letters," lick stamps, even capitalize. just to write to Congress! who has time for that anymore?
So what does the future hold? Personally, I believe the children are our future. They will lead us from this higgledy-piggledy rocket ride we call the '90s. Why them? Because while we all may have come down with Attention Deficit Disorder, the kids got all the Ritalin.