Tag Archives: attention span

Ditch your smartphone and build a diorama

The smartphone is the latest in a long line of technologies which have transformed the way we communicate. Television, personal computing, video games and smartphones have made our lives more convenient and more entertaining. They have also shortened our attention spans. By forcing our brains to adapt to increasingly condensed communication, they permanently change the way we process information . . . for the worse.  

The more accustomed we become to the technological shorthand of texts, likes, and swipes, the more trouble we have with anything that requires more time and concentration, like reading a novel or creating a work of art. This is why bookstores and hobby shops have been vanishing from the retail landscape over the past few decades. So few people have the patience to read a book or dedicate themselves to a hobby, that retailers are running out of customers. 

We naively assume that if something is harmful, we’ll be warned. But the medical community only addresses illnesses which it has permission to address. This is why television sets, computers, video games and smartphones carry no warning labels. The profits which technology companies and media giants generate are more important than your health or mine. 

Television was the first mass market technology to degrade our attention spans. Cinema had already condensed storytelling from 500 page novels to two-hour movies. But TV was the real game changer, because it brought movies into the family home, and people could immerse themselves in it all day long. Television condensed storytelling even further than the cinema. An hour-long format became the standard for drama and variety programs, and a half-hour format was used for sitcoms. And woven into these programs were commercials, which could tell a story in as little as 15 seconds.

The Internet was the next major technology to alter the way we communicate. Emails replaced letters. So instead of receiving a card for your birthday, you now get an email with an animated gif (and you wonder if the sender was too cheap to buy a card and mail it). Unlike television, which is passive, the Internet is a two-way medium. Its impact on the way we process information is thus twice as powerful, because it trains us to both send and receive information in a specific way. 

The effects of television and the Internet pale in comparison with the smartphone. This is the ultimate Attention Deficit Device. Its market growth has been astonishing, and in some countries, smartphones are more common than potable water. 

The smartphone mobilizes the Internet. Liberated from the desktop computer, we can now indulge our social media habits wherever we go. We’re on our phones all day long, whether shopping, eating, driving to work, or walking in the park. Why are they so addictive?

Every time you receive a notification on your phone, your brain releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine. Pretty soon, you become accustomed to this never-ending parade of dopamine hits, which are just as addictive as the nicotine in cigarettes.

The result is that people never put down their phones, because they experience withdrawal symptoms if they do. And the longer they spend on their phones, the more their brain adapts to process the brief, shallow and impersonal messages they send and receive. The human attention span is being shortened to accommodate the smartphone paradigm. And no-one seems to mind making this personal sacrifice to the clever little device glued to their hand. Smartphones are running the show. 

But this is the inevitable march of progress, you say. Well, that depends on how you define progress. At some point, you’ll need to have a face-to-face conversation with an actual human being, care for an infant, or do something else that requires more than a few seconds of your attention. This is where the trouble starts. Suddenly you don’t have the patience for it, because your brain can only handle one-line text messages. And a face-to-face conversation may not provide the dopamine hits your phone does, so the downward spiral accelerates. Pretty soon you start to avoid real human interactions. What kind of progress is that?

So although it may be fun to text, swipe and tweet all day long, be aware of the Faustian bargain you’re making. In return for convenience, entertainment, and ego stroking, your little plastic Lucifer is rewiring your brain, shortening your attention span, and making you anti-social.  

Like quitting smoking, it takes a lot of willpower to give up your smartphone completely. Most people will never do it. So what can you do? 

Rather than quitting cold turkey, the way to combat smartphone addiction is to gradually increase the time you spend on other activities you enjoy. As a reader of this blog, you know the solution: build a diorama. 

The process of building a diorama, from inspiration to conception and construction to completion, is intensive and time consuming. These two qualities make it the perfect antidote to the brain deadening effects of the smartphone. If you’re able, set aside a separate room where you work on your diorama, and—this is important—never bring your phone into the same room. The more you work on your diorama, the more your brain will thank you.

The feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment you get after finishing a lengthy creative project is something your smartphone can never provide. Remember the last time you finished a diorama. You felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. That’s because you reached the reward centre of your brain the natural way . . . through discipline and perseverance. In this age of technological distractions, it’s easy to forget that through the hardest work come the biggest rewards.   

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

 

 

 

Diecast replicas, instant gratification, and the vanishing art of model kit building

Today I had an interesting conversation with the manager of a local store specializing in aviation related merchandise. This store just underwent a major revamp. The most striking change was a huge increase in the amount of floor space devoted to ready made diecast aircraft replicas. This section was not only expanded, but also moved to the front of the store. In contrast, the plastic kit section was shrunk down in size and relegated to the back of the store.

When I asked about this change, the manager confirmed that diecast replicas were outselling kits by a huge margin. He went on and on about the quality and fine detail on these replicas and how much they’ve improved over the years. I pointed out another trend, which is that people are losing the patience to build kits. He agreed with this but didn’t seem concerned.

In our world of instant gratification, it should come as no surprise that fewer and fewer people are building model kits. Instant gratification has become a core Western value, and you can see it in the short-term planning that corporations use, the tactical (rather than strategic) mindset of politicians who can’t see past the ends of their own noses, and the effects of technology.

Communication technology is probably the biggest cuplrit in training ordinary people to expect instant gratification. While everyone blindly praises the uninterrupted 24/7 contact which digital telephony has enabled, no-one seems to have noticed the ugly side effects.

For the first time in human history, verbal conversations are being replaced by snippets of text. These text messages are to face-to-face conversations what finger paintings are to a Rembrandt. They’re devoid of poetry and depth, not to mention basic punctuation. Instead of witty banter, we have emoticons. No wonder children are so easily addicted to smart phones. These devices are a grammar-free playground of reassuring smiley faces, ideally suited to short attention spans. As our minds are remapped to favour brief, careless messaging over communication with content and substance, we are reverting to our preschool selves.

The other danger of this new technology is the way it undermines our mental focus. A mobile phone conversation is invariably conducted while running for the bus, ordering at a restaurant, or doing any number of other activities. So only a fraction of the user’s attention is focused on the conversation. This is akin to an Olympic sprinter running a race while trying to tie a shoelace at the same time.

Harried urban drones like to flatter themselves as multitaskers. Although the term “multitask” sounds full of promise, the hard reality is that the human brain is akin to a one-CPU computer. We pretend to multitask by switching frantically from task to task every few seconds, only raising our blood pressure and shortchanging the task at hand. We ignore the fact that the human brain is simply incapable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time.

So back to diecast replicas. For those lacking the motor skills or hand-eye coordination to build a model kit, there’s a place for these products. But most of the time, they’re a cop-out. The buyer is taking a shortcut to the end result, not realizing it comes at a cost. Gone is the joy of artistic creation, with all its ups and downs, and that sublime moment at the end when you can proudly display something you made with your own hands. For those who thought about building a kit and succumbed to the instant gratification of the diecast option, it’s a choice they’ll eventually regret.

-Ivar

 

Whither the hobby shop?

Not too long ago, there seemed to be several hobby shops in every city. And plastic model kits were popular enough that they were a staple of the toy section in most major department stores. I remember those days fondly.

The toy section was the only saving grace for young boys forced to accompany their mothers on shopping trips downtown (I speak from experience). With a little prodding, mom could be persuaded to drop by the toy section after all the boring necessities (clothes, household supplies, etc.) had been purchased.

As a teen, I remember embarking on long bike rides and trips on city buses to visit local hobby shops whenever possible. Sometimes a friend and I would organize a day trip to another city to see the sights, which inevitably included a hobby shop or two. Even our family vacations were not complete without a visit to the local hobby shop. This was before the advent of the Internet, so who knew what unique products might be found in a hobby shop located in another city or country?

Sadly, many hobby shops have closed their doors over the last several years. Some of these closings are due to the shift in retail from bricks and mortar to online, which can be seen in many retail categories. But research from IBISWorld confirms that profit margins for hobby shops have been steadily declining over the past decade, and this has forced many small independent stores out of business. Only the larger online retailers, who can negotiate volume discounts that small mom and pop stores have no hope of matching, are surviving. Model kits are ideally suited to online retail, since plastics are lightweight and inexpensive to ship.

For buyers, the advent of online shopping is nothing short of revolutionary, and in a good way. I can now locate the most obscure decal sheet, aftermarket part or thirty year old kit in minutes and have it delivered from anywhere in the world.

Another benefit of the online shopping revolution is the surge in producers of garage kits. Now, with the help of a website, any talented individual can produce and sell resin kits to buyers worldwide. This also increases choice for the buyer, since subjects which are too obscure for major manufacturers to mass produce are covered by garage kit producers who can make a profit on very low volumes.

There’s a part of me that misses the bricks and mortar shopping experience. That sense of anticipation: “what cool new items am I going to see on the shelf when I open the door and walk in?” And once you enter, the chance to talk about the fine points of modelling with the store owner. This is missing from online shopping. Yes, we have online forums where people can talk about modelling, but it’s not the same. People act much worse online, protected by a cloak of anonymity, than they do face-to-face. This is why online forum discussions tend to resemble food fights in a school cafeteria.

Another trend I’ve noticed is that model kits in hobby shops have begun sharing shelf space with fully assembled (or almost fully assembled) diecast miniatures. Diecast cars from the likes of Corgi and Dinky have been around for decades, but now diecasts of aircraft and science fiction subjects have become popular. And they are offered in the same scales as plastic model kits, meaning that they are being positioned as direct competitors. It appears that diecasts are popular with adults as well as children.

If hobby shop owners are sacrificing plastic model kit shelf space for ready-made diecast miniatures, there must be a reason for it. The obvious one is a shift in demand. Perhaps fewer people are willing to spend the time to assemble and paint a plastic model kit. They want the payoff—a realistic aircraft replica to display in the living room—without the work.

In today’s world of condensed sound bites and abbreviated text messages, few can muster the focus needed to devote several hours to reading a novel or putting a plastic model kit together. Parents equip their kids with smart phones and video games, which reduce attention spans and train them to expect instant gratification. Public schools are not helping either: although children are still taught to print, the teaching of cursive is being phased out. The elegant art of handwriting will soon be a thing of the past, replaced by typing at a computer keyboard.

How will this impact the manual dexterity of future generations? Picking up a pen and learning cursive is an important part of developing motor skills. Someone who doesn’t know how to manipulate a pen may find themselves challenged by other tasks requiring fine manual motor skills as well. These skills are de rigueur for gardening, cooking, and home repairs, to name just a few. Where will the next generation of surgeons (whose level of manual dexterity can have life or death consequences) come from?

I recently asked a hobby shop owner if he thought the increase in demand for diecast replicas was due to a downturn in the popularity of model building. He wouldn’t admit to it, despite the fact that there were several shelves of diecast aircraft in his store. He pointed out that buying a diecast replica and displaying it on a bookshelf doesn’t give the buyer the feeling of accomplishment that he gets from putting a plastic model kit together. And he seemed strenuously opposed to the idea that building models was going out of style. But then why was he carrying diecast products?

Based on the IBISWorld research, discretionary spending on hobbies in general has been down since the 2008 recession, so it’s probably safe to say that there are fewer plastic model hobbyists today than a few decades ago. If I had to guess, I’d say the golden age of modelling was somewhere around the end of the 20th Century. Long-time manufacturers like Revell and Airfix had been joined by newer companies such as Tamiya and Hasegawa, and the latter elevated the quality and accuracy of their products to new levels. Lots of people seemed to be building plastic models. On a positive note, most of the top plastic model manufacturers are still in business, and they continue to introduce new products every year.

In the end, what matters is not whether everyone else loves what you do, but that you love what you do. It’s inevitable that the popularity of plastic modelling will wax and wane over time, just like everything else, so why worry about it?

I’m reminded of a great scene from the movie Spinal Tap, in which the band’s manager, Ian Faith, is being interviewed. The interviewer mentions that the band is playing much smaller venues than it used to, and he asks if this is because the band’s popularity is waning. Faith brilliantly replies, “Oh no, not at all. I just think that their appeal is becoming more selective.”

-Ivar