Monday, November 15, 2010

On Glycerine, Battleships, and Thinking Fast

I accept it as a fact of life that I no longer have an attention span. I am constantly distracted from my life's work by the stiff breeze of a Twitter post about grizzly bears, or a Facebook update about a particularly popular brunch spot in a town I never plan on visiting. This is the way the world works nowadays; there is nothing I can do to prevent it short of sailing to a mysterious island and locking myself in a cage with a machine that dispenses fish biscuits.

This is my brain at age 37. And so I cannot imagine what it must be like for the 21-year-olds who have grown up hard-wired to technology, who have essentially never known a world without distraction. Seriously, how does anyone study? And far more important, how does a college football team manage to memorize its playbook? There is so much random information parading through our synapses that it is nearly impossible to keep everything straight. Which is why Oregon coach Chip Kelly has come up with the most innovative playcalling strategy of the modern era.

You may have seen these placards, the ones Oregon uses to signal plays from its sideline to its amphetamine-addled offense. On the surface, they make no sense. On the surface, they are just random bytes and seemingly unrelated snippets culled from ESPN and the Encyclopedia Brittanica and a Marlon Perkins special, but that is the beauty of Kelly's system: Whatever these symbols happen to mean (and I hope someday in the future, we get to find out), they are the optimal fit for the hard-wiring of a 21-year-old's brain, for a kid who spends all day clicking through to unrelated links on Twitter and processes hundreds of generally meaningless pieces of information over the course of an afternoon. They are utterly random signifiers. They are, as one Oregon coach notes, "something that would give our guys an immediate association so they could get out there and play fast."

It's not just about playing fast, of course. It's about thinking fast, which is generally the only kind of thinking we do these days. In winning game after game, Oregon just happens to be thinking a little bit faster. And the best way to do that is to assure that your train of thought makes as little sense as possible.

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