Here’s something suited to Nicholas Carr’s Realtime Chronicles, from a chapter near the end of New Grub Street. Failed author and up-and-coming literary agent Whelpdale presents his idea for a new journal to his friend, the cynical hack journalist Milvain and his sister.
‘I want to find a capitalist,’ he said, ‘who will get possession of that paper Chat, and transform it according to an idea I have in my head. The thing is doing very indifferently, but I am convinced it might be made splendid property, with a few changes in the way of conducting it.’
‘The paper is rubbish,’ remarked Jasper, ‘and the kind of rubbish—oddly enough—which doesn’t attract people.’
‘Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. I have talked to the people about it again and again, but I can’t get them to believe what I say. Now just listen to my notion. In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat I should call it Chit-Chat!’
Jasper exploded with mirth.
‘That’s brilliant!’ he cried. ‘A stroke of genius!’
‘Are you serious? Or are you making fun of me? I believe it is a stroke of genius. Chat doesn’t attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America. I know I am right; laugh as you will.’
‘On the same principle,’ cried Jasper, ‘if The Tatler were changed to Tittle-Tattle, its circulation would be trebled.’
Whelpdale smote his knee in delight.
‘An admirable idea! Many a true word uttered in joke, and this is an instance! Tittle- Tattle—a magnificent title; the very thing to catch the multitude.’
Dora was joining in the merriment, and for a minute or two nothing but bursts of laughter could be heard.
‘Now do let me go on,’ implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. ‘That’s only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this:—I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.’
‘But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!’ exclaimed Dora.
‘No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on ‘buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.’
Jasper had begun to listen seriously.
‘There’s something in this, Whelpdale,’ he remarked.
‘Ha! I have caught you?’ cried the other delightedly. ‘Of course there’s something in it?’
‘But——’ began Dora, and checked herself.
‘You were going to say——’ Whelpdale bent towards her with deference.
‘Surely these poor, silly people oughtn’t to be encouraged in their weakness.’
Whelpdale’s countenance fell. He looked ashamed of himself. But Jasper came speedily to the rescue.
‘That’s twaddle, Dora. Fools will be fools to the world’s end. Answer a fool according to his folly; supply a simpleton with the reading he craves, if it will put money in your pocket. You have discouraged poor Whelpdale in one of the most notable projects of modern times.’
‘I shall think no more of it,’ said Whelpdale, gravely. ‘You are right, Miss Dora.’
Again Jasper burst into merriment. His sister reddened, and looked uncomfortable. She began to speak timidly:
‘You said this was for reading in trains and ‘buses?’
Whelpdale caught at hope.
‘Yes. And really, you know, it may be better at such times to read chit-chat than to be altogether vacant, or to talk unprofitably. I am not sure; I bow to your opinion unreservedly.’
‘So long as they only read the paper at such times,’ said Dora, still hesitating. ‘One knows by experience that one really can’t fix one’s attention in travelling; even an article in a newspaper is often too long.’
‘Exactly! And if you find it so, what must be the case with the mass of untaught people, the quarter-educated? It might encourage in some of them a taste for reading—don’t you think?’
‘It might,’ assented Dora, musingly. ‘And in that case you would be doing good!’
They smiled joyfully at each other. Then Whelpdale turned to Jasper:
‘You are convinced that there is something in this?’
‘Seriously, I think there is. It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item—we won’t call it article. For instance, you might display on a placard: “What the Queen eats!” or “How Gladstone’s collars are made!”—things of that kind.’
‘To be sure, to be sure. And then, you know,’ added Whelpdale, glancing anxiously at Dora, ‘when people had been attracted by these devices, they would find a few things that were really profitable. We would give nicely written little accounts of exemplary careers, of heroic deeds, and so on. Of course nothing whatever that could be really demoralising—cela va sans dire.’
So Gissing was onto the idea for USA Today, the free Metro papers, and Twitter all at once, and anticipated the attention-span critique of modern reading habits.Technophiles would point to this probably and argue that it shows that critiques have ever complained thus, and have always been irrelevant alarmists. But I think it shows the inherent tendency of technology toward co-opting our ability to think, which after all can be such an enormous burden to us.