The cast of Caryl Churchill’s internationally acclaimed work, "Love and Information." "Love and Information" is a collection of 57 scenes that challenge audiences to consider the fateful, intimate dance between the virtual and the real, and the ways we filter data in the Information Age. Photo credit: Kevin Berne
By Joe Ferguson
Earlier this year Microsoft confirmed what many of us suspected—attention spans are shrinking. According to the report, our ability to stay focused on a single item shrank from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8—one second less than a goldfish. The decline in our attention spans is blamed on our addiction to mobile devices and the ceaseless delivery of online media.
The upside is that it appears that early adopters of technology and heavy social media users have become better at processing and encoding information through short, intermittent bursts of high-attention. In other words, they’re better at identifying what they want or don’t want to engage with, and need less stimulus to process and commit things to memory. These same people, however, struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed, like work or school.
The effect of this dichotomy of quick decision making and attention deficit has been widely studied on professional and academic performance, but its social impact has been largely ignored by researchers. Sociocultural change is fertile ground for the arts, however, and the idea is explored thoroughly in Caryl Churchill’s play Love and Information.
Into a tightly-packed 100 minutes, Churchill squeezes 57 scenes, each one lasting between 5 seconds and 5 minutes. Twelve actors bounce between roles exploring themes of love, deception, loneliness, and isolation all at the hands of mobile technology and information overload.
The scenes are grouped in seven sections. Churchill’s directive was that the sections be performed in numerical order, but the order of the vignettes within each section could be changed at the director’s discretion. Churchill did not include stage directions or character descriptions, leaving those to the artistic team at each venue.
Over the course of the play we encounter a man falling for his computer, a phone addict texting her way through dinner, a father and son in a fishing camp off the grid talking about a lack of internet and cellphone reception, and many others.
It seems no coincidence that Love and Information was chosen as the inaugural production for A.C.T’s new second venue, the renovated Strand Theater in San Francisco. Costing $34.4 million, the 283-seat former vaudeville house sits just down the road from Twitter, Spotify, and Yammer—technology companies that contribute greatly to the information saturation depicted in the play.
The dialogue exchanges and scene changes happened at a furious rate, and although the characters often displayed overt emotional responses, the Twitter-esque briefness provided little depth or narrative anchor. The lack of a clear narrative device left the performance without climatic breaks, making the 100 minutes feel a bit long. These would normally be negative criticisms, but the effect felt deliberate and supported the piece’s theme of the impact of shrinking attention spans on our social lives.
Behind the actors was an ever-changing multimedia projection that allowed for rapid scene changes and mirrored the media-saturated world of the characters.
Critics have been quick to dismiss the play for its lack of a continuous plot, but those criticisms fail to consider that the long term impact of an endless stream of social media and our growing addiction to mobile devices is yet to play out. We are in the beginning of a time of immense interconnectivity and information overload, for which we have not yet developed personal ways of management or making meaning.
Emerging technologies have always posed a threat to the status quo, and yet we have always navigated our way through. The ironic thing about this current peril, is that the medium providing the constant stream of information about the threat, is the threat itself.