Media and the manipulation of time

We’re being conned. Every book we read, every movie or show we watch, and every podcast we listen to is complicit in the game.

In history books and biographies, decades pass in a few pages. In movies, months and years evaporate in the transition between one scene and the next. Every form of media we consume manipulates and distorts our very sense of time.

I know it has to be this way. A book can’t detail every day in the life of it’s subject. If it did, the result would be boring and unreadable. A movie can’t show us every second of a historic event. Nobody would sit for days and watch such a thing unfold. 

Media has to be an abstraction of life. It can’t show it all to us. It must select the best and the most significant parts and arrange them in a way that engages, and holds, our attention. That’s why media is so potent. If real life is like preparing, cooking and eating a filling meal, media is like stabbing yourself in the neck and injecting adrenaline right into your bloodstream. That’s the difference.

But such an abstraction, such selectiveness, is harmful to our perceptions. 

As I write this, it’s dark outside. It’s five thirty AM. Practically every morning for the past six months I’ve been up before the dawn to write. And when I cast my mind back over this period, it doesn’t feel like six months. It feels longer, like I’ve been doing it all my life. 

Yet, when I read about other writers and creatives in books, I often get a version of the following: “In the evenings, after he’d finished at the office, Smith would come home, make himself dinner and work on his masterpiece. After several years, he had a manuscript that aroused only slight embarrassment when he showed it to others.”

Smith works every day, for years. He does the same thing every day, for years. But the reader traverses those years in just a few syllables. And how did those years feel to the tenacious Smith? Did they flit by as they did for the reader? No way. And that’s the problem. In media, decades fly. In reality, they trickle.

Why is this is a problem? Two words: unrealistic expectations. 

We’re so used to the frantic pace, the swift passing of time in media that we come to expect the same quickness in our own lives. To read the word ‘decades’ takes less than a second. And when we read about the path to mastery or monumental achievement taking decades, we don’t fully comprehend how long a decade is. How long it feels. So when what we’re aiming for is slow to come, we get frustrated. We moan, we question, we stomp our feet. We rage at our own inability to accelerate into the future at the same pace as the narratives we consume make us believe is possible. We expect the work of a decade to be done in a short series of days.

But it can’t be. So don’t worry when it feels like it’s taking a long time. It’s not that you’re over-ambitious, or that you’re impatient. It’s just that it is taking a long time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Because this is real life, not some story.