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18 June 2009

I will be brief

We’re running out of time and space, so let’s hear it for brevity,Twitter and a cricket match decide

By Mark Watson

The nights are getting shorter, and I’ve started noticing that everything else is, too. The Twenty20 World Cup offers a dramatically attenuated version of cricket for people who like the game in theory but are keen to get the actual hitting-and-catching over with as soon as possible. I did a gig recently on Twitter: comedians have to keep their gags to 140 characters, and the virtual audience is free to leave whenever it likes. I am writing this at a restaurant where the food is free if staff don’t serve you within ten minutes; I’ve been racking my brains for ways to disrupt the chef.

All in all, it would be hard to deny that our collective attention span is becoming alarmingly short, our obsession with speed over quality more and more marked. I could give you more examples, but you’re probably already looking forward to a new topic of conversation.

Naturally, this trend has been gathering pace for a while. Twenty20 cricket is itself a cut-down version of one-day cricket, which began as a bastardisation of the real, sometimes agonisingly long-winded thing. It is hard to imagine how cricket matches can get much shorter unless the two captains simply meet on the pitch at 11am, decide who should win, shake hands on it and go home. Twitter is the latest manoeuvre by which the internet is seemingly reducing human communication to a succession of disposable one-liners. Sick of reading newspapers? Read a blog! Blogs too much like hard work? We present the microblog! Right at this moment, someone is probably working on a website where the day’s headlines across the world are presented in the form of a single haiku.

There’s a general impression, among people who spend their time worrying about this sort of thing, that the more we read 60-second “news digests”, attend productions of Hamlet condensed down to three minutes, and deliver our last will and testament by text message, the more shallow a society we’re becoming. But the other day, it occurred to me that perhaps there’s an argument in favour of keeping things as short as we can; the universe is so complex and so brimming with possibilities that we can’t afford to obsess over any one thing if we want to make the most of it. We’ve got a lot to get through.

What triggered this realisation was seeing a man on TV who had spent 15 years building a model of the Titanic from matchsticks, a feat which propelled him into the “And finally . . .” section of the local news. He described how painstaking the process had been. “But it must be a great feeling now you’ve done it?” the interviewer prompted. “Well . . .” said the man doubtfully. “Yes, I mean, I’m glad to be done with it, anyway.” For a few moments there was silence, and on the man’s face you could clearly see the question: “Why the hell did I spend 15 years of my life on that?”

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The internet is probably the best small-scale model of the universe that humankind has ever had – in its pages we get a glimpse of the sheer amount of stuff there is out there. It starts to make sense that we would want to sample cut-down versions of as many experiences as we can, otherwise there is so much we will miss out on altogether. Do you want to get to the end of your life and find that you never visited Africa because you insisted on going to all five days of every Test match? Spending 15 years with a single matchstick model as your main hobby may be a commendable, rather heart-warming endeavour – noble, even – but it is wrong to suggest that people with shorter-term interests are somehow missing out on the “real satisfaction” of life. They’re just being pragmatic.

Our time on earth is maddeningly brief, and the list of distractions competing to fill it is longer than ever. Over the past decade or so, we’ve heard more than enough self-help gurus stirring up a backlash against our overcrowded lives, urging us to find contentment in small, achievable goals. I’m going to begin a counter-backlash against this Zen mentality. If you get the nagging feeling that you’re missing out on things, it’s not because of “affluenza” or “status anxiety”, it’s because you are missing out on things. Hurl yourself at life like a lunatic. Cram in as much as you can. You’re a long time dead. That’s my advice.

And if you glanced at the start of the article, then skipped to this point in the hope of picking up the gist of it, well done. To summarise: life is short. Experiences need to be short.

To counterbalance the modernism of these thoughts, I’d like to take up a more middle-aged position and gripe about the overuse of a word, something you’re not meant to do until you’re at least 40. The word is “contemporary”. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard people describe as “contemporary” the menu in a restaurant (as opposed, presumably, to those restaurants which have menus from the old days), a perfume (“a sassy, contemporary fragrance”) and Russell Brand: “I think he’s great, really contemporary.”

Now, I’m sure all these people are using “contemporary” to mean “modern, of the moment, exciting”, but all they’re really saying is that the perfume/restaurant/comedian exists now. Russell Brand could hardly avoid being “contemporary” unless it were suddenly revealed that he is actually living in the 18th century and performing for us by means of a portal between the two eras manufactured by Channel 4. (In view of their recent financial problems, this seems far-fetched.) Calling a fragrance “contemporary” is nonsense even by the standards of marketing people. Who gets a whiff of a friend’s perfume and says: “Gosh, you smell so much like 2009 in general?”

I blame estate agents, who have long used words such as “authentic” and “bespoke” as crude tools in their campaign to mystify the thoroughly ordinary. An estate agent boasted to me last summer, as we walked around a flat: “These floors are all authentic, by the way.” That’s good to hear, I thought – I hate it when the floor turns out to be a forgery.

This all seems rather trivial and pedantic, perhaps, but only a couple of weeks ago the New Statesman reminded us of Orwell’s achievement, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, of showing that language and truth owe their existence to one another. Words are precious things. Let’s do our best to ensure they are used in an authentically contemporary manner.

Mark Watson is a comedian

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