Tuesday, June 26, 2012
SUPERFICIAL DINGBATS, MENTAL LAXATIVES, AND OTHER NOT SO CHARMING PREDISPOSITIONS
Email has killed the art of letters. In olden days, the thinkers within a civilization were so interesting and thoughtful that we have found it worth publishing books that consisted entirely of nothing but their correspondence. That’s over with. Can you imagine a book full of the emails and text messages of a modern day celebrity, politician or author? Nope. Dispute whatever you wish, but you can't dispute that our communication with one another has dumbed down at an incredibly rapid pace. Over half of our “friendships” are now on Facebook. And while Facebook amazingly and incredibly gives us the ability to “stay in contact” with our friends who live all over the planet, it has also screwed the quality of our communication with one another. They say you should choose quality over quantity. The internet strongly disagrees.
My interest in this topic is on the level of being interested in a disaster like the sinking of the Titanic. I've become convinced that every time you watch one single episode of a reality TV show, hundreds of your brain cells have just been murdered (and the number of reality TV show episodes being watched, every day, by Americans, is still growing exponentially). I’ve started exploring this subject because when I read good writers I realize that my modern vocabulary has been woefully limited. The rapid rise of social media over the last decade or two has, somehow, decreased our vocabulary. The ability to express what we feel and think has been shoved into the molds of typically catchy little phrases.
As we have been Twittering away at our streams of consciousness, our streams of consciousness have shrunk to very thin slices that have been increasingly and easily disturbed or influenced by the trendy, the sensational or the polarized. They say that neanderthals communicated with each other, millions of years ago, through sublingual grunts and mewlings. This is now the sort of language that we text to each other over the cell phone.
Mankind is currently engaged in the process of rewiring its brain to that of a whole collection of short-attention spanned, unquestioning, easily led, easily offended, easily bored, sensitive sensation seeking, emotional high addicts who have been brain-washed into thinking that they are supposed to “kill time” and to “rest” their minds at the end of each day. We’ve been taught that there is an ever increasing blob of benefits that we deserve and advantages to which we are entitled. We’ve been instructed that we have self-identities to nurture, self-esteem to protect, and self-actualization to wean. We’ve been influenced into becoming non-thinkers. Thinking is too hard, or at the very least, a necessary drudgery into which we have to force ourselves during hours of work or school (if we’re unlucky enough to actually have work or school that requires the act of thinking).
Today, attempting to discuss anything of depth or meaning is, more often than not, either (a) a social faux pas of the bad-mannered conversationalist, (b) a “conversation” killer by the fanatically minded, or (c) a bore. This is the way we think now. This is the society in which we live. This is how we are encouraged to relate to each other.
In every historical age, different generations are faced with unique historical problems. In our own “Postmodern” Digitized age, we have been given a unique problem of our own. The problem is this: More significantly than ever before in the history of mankind, the ways that we think and the things that we value - how we understand everything from our physical health to our personal relationships to our spiritual meaning - are all being shaped and molded by outside forces that are not immediately apparent to us. The speed with which technology has expanded and permeated every single little detail of our lives has overtaken our understanding of what our use of technology is doing to us. Our attitudes, beliefs, and choices - even our capacity for thought - is being fashioned by the culture in which we live and by the entertainment with which we occupy our time. Most of us have not consciously chosen for this to happen to us. But it is happening all the same.
Social-networking, for all its benefits, encourages the daily concerns of youth culture. The ability to connect 24/7 with one's peers raises the interests of the majority of one's peers to a far more intense level of focus. The end result is a superficiality and shallowness that has only become possible by technology's prioritizing our socialization by popularity defined and measured by mouse-clicks. Modern pop culture is now ruled by the hand-held device. The events in your life are being tagged and recorded in minute-by-minute electronic scrolls. We don't go out into nature and get away from it all, instead, we go out into nature and digitally update the rest of the world that we are, in fact, out doing a nature thing (and then we go back and check our updates to see if anyone else "likes" what we are doing).
In the last five decades or so, we created the very idea of a "teenager." We distinguished the adolescent from the adult. We distinguished adolescent activity and entertainment from grown-up activity and entertainment. Then we made the concerns of adolescents the concerns of adults. Now all of us are stuck with the brains and entertainment of teenagers. What shall we do next? All we have to do now is encourage the creation of the idea of a "tween." We can then distinguish the tween from the teenager. Then we can distinguish tween activity and entertainment from teenage activity and entertainment. And then ...
If you have any taste in music at all, then there is some music on, oh say, the radio, that you avoid listening to. When you drive somewhere, just listen to the popular music pounding (or whining) out of the cars next to you. Something is wrong. I often find that popular music sounds just like this:
This is not the sort of music that is going to encourage, refresh, revitalize or inspire you. This is the sort of music that is most popular.
It is not difficult to reach the conclusion that we now live in the age of the mental laxative. A topic of conversation at a social event, a youtube video, a TV show episode, a flurry of never ending text messages, a music video, a news story from either CNN or Fox News, a tweet, a pop song, a speech by a politician ... all these things are often the intellectual equivalent of diluting the mind like a laxative pill is designed to dilute other things. The end result is never very pleasant.
But I'm not interested in just making curmudgeonly rants that accomplish nothing. The subject of how technology and entertainment shapes the way that we think and limits our capacity for imagination is a subject that often ignored thinkers and scholars have been pursuing for decades. Questions are being raised that we have barely ever bothered with. One of the most comprehensive recent books on the subject was written by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. One of the advantages to being a self-conscious being is that one can even study how what we do forms our own brains. Short-attention spans or shallow thinking are not the result of personal taste or personality. They are the result of cultivated habit and practice.
I know very little about this subject, so I am currently engaged in building a bookshelf devoted to it. The number of thinkers who are studying what is happening to us is impressive. It is high time that we started paying attention to their questions. Much of what they have to say is ignored or dismissively criticized, but it shouldn't be. They are explaining the problem of what is being lost. And within their explanations, whether you fully agree with them or not, is a perception that we may need to guide us as the rest of the world keeps hurtling down the never-ending path of technological progress.
Thus, below is a series of excerpts from a unique collection of books that ought to make your reading lists:
Richard Hofstadter writes in Anti-Intellectualism In American Life (1962) -
“The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction taht defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect ... is lost.
... Of course the fundamental fallacy in these fictional antagonisms is that they are based not upon an effort to see out the actual limits of intellect in human life but rather upon a simplified divorce of intellect from all the other human qualities with which it may be combined ... It would be pointless to accept the form in which the challenge is put and attempt to make a defense of intellect as against emotion or character or practicality. Intellect needs to be understood not as some kind of a claim against the other human excellences for which a fatally high price has to be paid, but rather as a complement to them without which they cannot be fully consummated ... Posed in these rather general terms, this fact may seem obvious; but historically it has been obvious to all too few; and the purpose of this book is to trace some of the social movements in our history in which intellect has been dissevered from its co-ordinate place among the human virtues and assigned the position of a special kind of vice.” pgs. 45-47
Marshall McLuhan writes in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) -
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. Thus, with automation, for example, the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate jobs, it is true. That is the negative result. Positively, automation creates roles for people, which is to say depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical technology had destroyed. Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships ...
“Scholars today are acutely aware of a discrepancy between their ways of treating subjects and the subject itself. Scriptural scholars of both the Old and New Testaments frequently say that while their treatment must be linear, the subject is not. The subject treats of the relations between God and man, and between God and the world, and of the relations between man and his neighbor - all these subsist together, and act and react upon one another at the same time. The Hebrew and Eastern mode of thought tackles problem and resolution, at the outset of a discussion, in a way typical of oral societies in general. The entire message is then traced and retraced, again and again, on the rounds of a concentric spiral with seeming redundancy. One can stop anywhere after the first few sentences and have the full message, if one is prepared to "dig" it. This kind of plan seems to have inspired Frank Lloyd Wright in designing the Guggenheim Art Gallery on a spiral, concentric basis. It is a redundant form inevitable to the electric age, in which the concentric pattern is imposed by the instant quality, and overlay in depth, of electric speed. But the concentric with its endless intersection of planes is necessary for insight. In fact, it is the technique of insight, and as such is necessary for media study, since no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media.
“The new electric structuring and configuring of life more and more encounters the old lineal and fragmentary procedures and tools of analysis from the mechanical age. More and more we turn from the content of messages to study total effect. Kenneth Boulding put this matter in The Image by saying, "The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image." Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement ...”
Jerry Mander writes in Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television (1978) -
“We have all had the experience of reading a paragraph only to realize that we had not absorbed any of it. This requires going over the paragraph a second time, deliberately giving it conscious effort. It is only with conscious effort and direct participation at one’s own speed that words gain any meaning to a reader.
Images require nothing of the sort. They only require that your eyes be open. The images enter you and are recorded in memory whether you think about them or not. They pour into you like fluid into a container. You are the container. The television is the pourer.
In the end, the viewer is little more than a vessel of reception, and television itself is less a communications or educational medium, as we have wished to think of it, than an instrument that plants images in the unconscious realms of the mind. We become affixed to the changing images, but as it is impossible to do anything about them as they enter us, we merely give ourselves over to them. It is total involvement on the one hand - complete immersion in the image stream - and total unconscious detachment on the other hand - no cognition, no discernment, no notations upon the experience one is having.” (pg. 204)
Neil Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) -
“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure ... This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” (pgs. xix-xx)
Neil Postman writes in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) -
“Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization - not to mention their reason for being - reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crises that new media foster.
Perhaps an analogy here will help to underline the point. In speaking of the meaning of a poem, T.S. Eliot remarked that the chief use of the overt content of poetry is ‘to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.’ In other words, in asking their practical questions, educators, entrepreneurs, preachers, and politicians are like the house-dog munching peacefully on the meat while the house is looted. Perhaps some of them know this and do not especially care ... But for the rest of us, it cannot be acceptable to have the house invaded without protest or at least awareness.
What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?” (pgs. 18-19)
Roger Scruton writes in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (1998) -
"... we must remember the distinction between fantasy and imagination, and the inherent tendency of the camera to realise what it shows - to present not a world of imagination, but a substitute reality. This is never more obvious than in the case of sex and violence, and is the root cause of the fact that these now dominate the cine screen, and would dominate television too, were it not for the censor. With the aid of the camera you can realise violence or the sexual act completely, and so minister to the fantasy which has sex or violence as its focus. If fantasy breaks through the tissue of the imagination, then the dramatic thought is scattered, and the imginative emotions along with it: drama then sinks into the background, and all that we have is obscenity - human flesh without the soul.
Hence many people are quickly satiated by cinematic representations, and at the same time deeply disturbed and absorbed by features (violence in particular) which, from the dramatic point of view, have little intrinsic meaning. Imagination withers when realisation blooms, and the ethical view of our condition withers along with it. It is a significant fact that most cinema-goers are disposed to see their favourite films only a few times, and that even people whose interest is not in the drama but in the blood, screams, and orgasms have no great interest in revisiting the last occasion of excitement, and will proceed joylessly to the next one without raising the question of the value of what they watch. This contrasts with every other kind of dramatic art - theatre, novel, opera, dramatic poem - in which the perception of beauty brings with it a desire constantly to return to the source, to re-enact in our emotions a drama which never loses its point for us, since it touches the question why we are here.
The desire to make the cinema into an imaginative art form, with the camera and the cutting room as adjuncts to the drama, rather than as short-cuts to the gratification of fantasy, lies behind the great poetic experiments of the black-and-white screen. Names like Eisenstein, Cocteau, Renoir, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini remind us of the enormous energy that has been applied to the task of taming the camera, of teaching it to serve the drama rather than to eclipse it. It is significant that the films of those masters are almost never now seen ..." (pgs. 102-103)
Ben Shapiro writes in Porn Generation (2005) -
"In a world where all values are equal, where everything is simply a matter of choice, narcissism rules the day. Our culture has bred hollow young men, obsessed with self-gratification. Young women are told to act like sex objects - and enjoy it. The revisionist historians have effectively labeled obscenity as a right that the Founding Fathers sought to protect. Society told the porn generation that final moral authority rests inside each of us - and in our vanity, we listened.
The mainstream acceptance of pornography has become a social fact. Order a movie. Walk past your local news shop. Log on to the Internet. It's everywhere - in your Blockbuster, your newspaper, your inbox. We've replaced faith and family with a warped image of sex and self-satisfaction that ridicules the concept of purity and mangles the most sacred ideals of matrimony." (pg. 2)
"According to a survey of college students conducted by 'Details' magazine and Random House, 46 percent had had a one-night stand, 43 percent had cheated on a steady partner, 21 percent had tried to get someone drunk or high to get them in bed, and 32 percent had slept with someone knowing they would never call again. On average, respondents had had 6.4 sex partners in their lives; 14 percent had 6-9 sex partners ...
The limitless sexual license of the porn generation is not without consequence. It leads to spiritual desensitization, emotional removal, and lack of commitment. The sad fact is that Tom Wolfe's literary characterization of a young girl, Charlotte Simmons, carries enormous weight because it is so true.
Simmons starts her college experience as a leader, a fighter, a moralist at fictional Dupont University. Early on, she protests the 'live and let live' morality that pervades the university:
'At Dupont ... everybody thinks you're kind of - of - some kind of twisted ... uptight ... pathetic little goody-goody if you haven't had sex. Girls will come right out and ask you - girls you hardly even know. They'll come right out and ask you - in front of other girls - if you're a V.C., a member of the Virgin's Club, and if you're stupid enough to say yes, it's an admission, like you have some sort of terrible character defect ... There's something perverted about that.'
... But Charlotte doesn't cry out to her family for help, and she doesn't extract herself from the moral mire that surrounds her. By the end of the book, she has capitulated to peer pressure, lost her virginity, and given in to the values of her surrounding environment. She has undergone deep depression, and she has emerged a shallower person for her experiences.
There are thousands of Charlotte Simmonses in the porn generation. When you're surrounded by encouragement leading you toward subjective morality, sexuality and hedonism, when you can't retreat to a safe haven, it's simply easier to capitulate than to fight ..." (pgs. 3-4)
Mark Bauerlein writes in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30] (2008) -
“Never have opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater. All the ingredients for making an informed and intelligent citizen are in place. But it hasn’t happened. Yes, young Americans are energetic, ambitious, enterprising, and good, but their talents and interests and money thrust them not into books and ideas and history and civics, but into a whole other realm and other consciousness. A different social life and a different mental life have formed among them. Technology has bred it, but the result doesn’t tally with the fulsome descriptions of digital empowerment, global awareness, and virtual communities. Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them. Young people have never been so intensely mindful of and present to one another, so enabled in adolescent contact. Teen images and songs, hot gossip and games, and youth-to-youth communications no longer limited by time or space wrap them up in a generational cocoon reaching all the way into their bedrooms. The autonomy has a cost: the more they attend to themselves, the less they remember the past and envision the future. They have all the advantages of modernity and democracy, but when the gifts of life lead to social joys, not intellectual labor, the minds of the young plateau at age 18. This is happening all around us. The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.” (pg. 10)
“In fall 2004, I joined a panel of faculty members at the University of Maryland to discuss, once again, reading trends for young adults and their implications for American culture. Facing about 250 students, I told them the truth, reciting the findings of several knowledge surveys as the inevitable outcome of not reading. Their interests lead them in polar directions, their knowledge running to zero in areas of civics, history, etc., while rising to a panoramic grasp of the lives of celebrities, the lyrics of pop music, and MySpace profiling. They wrinkle their brows if offered a book about Congress, but can’t wait for the next version of Halo. ‘Let’s get specific,’ I goaded. ‘You are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than you are to know who the Speaker of the House is.’ At that point, a voice in the crowd jeered, ‘American Idol is more important!’
She was right. In her world, stars count more than the most powerful world leaders. Knowing the names and ranks of politicians gets her nowhere in her social set, and reading a book about the Roman Empire earns nothing but teasing. More than just dull and nerdish, reading is counterproductive. Time spent reading books takes away from time keeping up with youth vogues, which change every month. To prosper in the hard-and-fast cliques in the schoolyard, the fraternities, and the food court, teens and 20-year-olds must track the latest films, fads, gadgets, YouTube videos, and television shows. They judge one another relentlessly on how they wear their clothes, recite rap lyrics, and flirt. Having career goals may not draw their mockery, but a high school guy found by his buddies reading The Age of Innocence on a summer afternoon never regains his verve, and a girl with Bowling Alone in hand is downright inscrutable ... The momentum of the social scene crushes the budding literary scruples of teens. Anti-book feelings are emboldened, and heavy readers miss out on activities that unify their friends.” (pgs. 42-43)
Susan Jacoby, in The Age of American Unreason (2008), writes -
“During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics. Indeed, popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are now synonymous ...” (pg. xii)
“First and foremost among the vectors of anti-intellectualism are the mas media. On the surface, today’s media seem to offer consumers an unprecedented variety of choices - television programs on hundreds of channels; movies; video games; music; and the Internet versions of those products, available in so many portable electronic packages that it is entirely possible to go through an entire day without being deprived for a second of commercial entertainment. And it should not be forgotten that all of the video entertainment is accompanied by a soundtrack, usually in the form of ear-shattering music and special effects that would obviate concentration and reflection even in the absence of visual images. Leaving aside the question of whether it is a good thing to be entertained twenty-four hours a day, the variety of the entertainment, given that all of the media outlets and programming divisions are controlled by a few major corporations, is largely an illusion.
But the absence of genuine choice is a relatively minor factor in the relationship between the mass media and the decline of intellectual life in America. It is not that television, or any of its successors in the world of video, was designed as an enemy of active intellectual endeavor but that the media, while they may not actually be the message, inevitably reshape content to fit a form that subordinates both the spoken and written word to visual images. In doing so, the media restrict their audience’s intellectual parameters not only by providing information in a highly condensed form but by filling time - a huge amount of time - that used to be occupied by engagement with the written word.” (pgs. 10-11)
Lee Siegel writes in Against The Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (2008) -
"... the Internet's social and psychological nature is the answer to a century of social and psychological change. During that time, the individual was gradually elevated above society. Satisfying our own desires has become more important than balancing our relationships with other people.
The age of Freud, the Existential Self, the Therapeutic Self, the Confessional Self, the Performing Self, the age of the memoir, the Me Generation, the Culture of Narcissism - life has become more mentalized, more inward, more directed toward the gratification of personal desire. The collapse of the family and the preponderance of people living alone are aspects of this trend ... We live more in our own heads than any society has at any time, and for some people now the only reality that exists is the one inside their heads ... The Internet is the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.
... But fundamental questions about the Internet's new conventions almost never get asked. Instead, the public gets panels of like-minded Internet boosters - and investors - outdoing each other in singing the Internet's praises. Anyone who does challenge Internet shibboleths gets called a fuddy-duddy or reactionary. Criticize the Internet and you are accused of criticizing democracy." (pgs. 6-8)
"On the Internet, an impulse is only seconds away from its gratification. Everyone you encounter online is an event in the force field of your impulses. The criterion for judging the worth of someone you engage with online is the degree of his or her availability to your will. As Al Cooper, a psychologist who studies the Internet, puts it: 'There is little difference between thought and Internet-enabled action ... The Internet provides immediate gratification that affects one's ability to inhibit previously managed drives and desires.' In other words, the Internet creates the ideal consumer." (pg. 175)
"Pornography is no more exclusively about sex than the libido is. Pornography reflects a general way of relating to the world. It collapses public and private. It turns quintessential play into a type of labor. Because it involves the most primal appetite, it has a universal appeal and popularity. The consummate vicarious endeavor, it thrives on and guarantees anonymity. Pornography transfigures other people into instruments of your will, and it strips them of their own ego and desire, so that you can mentally manipulate them without fear of rejection or reprisal.
In a sense, pornography and technology are joined at the hip. They both transform the reality outside your head into means whose sole end is convenience. (Pleasure is convenience as physical sensation.) Technology is a blessing, and a miracle, but it will not lead you to other people as finalities, as ends in themselves existing outside your needs and desires." (pg. 178)
Charles P. Pierce writes in Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (2009) -
"... this book is not merely about the changes in the country wrought by the atrocities of September 11, 2001. The foundation of Idiot America had been laid long before. A confrontation with medievalism intensified a distressing patience with medievalism in response, and that patience reached beyond the politics of war and peace and accelerated a momentum in the culture away from the values of the Enlightenment and toward a dangerous denial of the consequences of believing nonsense.
Let us take a tour, then, of one brief period in the new century, a sliver of time three years after the towers fell. A federally funded abstinence program suggests that the human immunodeficiency virus can be transmitted through tears. An Alabama legislator proposes a bill to ban all books by gay writers. The Texas House of Representatives passes a bill banning suggestive cheerleading at high school football games. And the nation doesn't laugh at any of this, as it should, or even point out that, in the latter case, having Texas ban suggestive cheerleading is like having Nebraska ban corn.
James Dobson, a prominent Christian spokesman, compares the Supreme Court of the United States with the Ku Klux Klan. Pat Robertson, another prominent conservative preacher man, says that federal judges are a greater threat to the nation than is Al Qaeda and, apparently taking his text from the Book of Gambino, later sermonizes that the United States should get on the stick and snuff the democratically elected president of Venezuela. And the nation does not wonder, audibly, how these two poor fellows were allowed on television.
The Congress of the United States intervenes to extend into a televised spectacle the prolonged death of a woman in Florida. The majority leader of the Senate, a physician, pronounces a diagnosis from a distance of eight hundred miles, relying for his information on a heavily edited videotape. The majority leader of the House of Representatives, a former exterminator, argues against cutting-edge research into the use of human embryonic stem cells by saying 'An embroyo is a person ... We were all at one time embroyos ourselves. So was Abraham. So was Muhammad. So was Jesus of Nazareth.' Nobody laughs at him, or points out that the same could be said of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the inventor of baby-back ribs.
And finally, in August 2005, the cover of Time - for almost a century, the clear if dyspeptic voice of the American establishment - hems and haws and hacks like an aged headmaster gagging on his sherry and asks, quite seriously, 'Does God have a place in science class?'
Fights over evolution - and its faddish camouflage, 'intelligent design,' a pseudoscience that posits without proof or method that science is inadequate to explain existence and that supernatural sources must be studied as well - roil through school boards across the country. The president of the United States announces that he believes that ID ought to be taught in the public schools on an equal footing with the theory of evolution. And in Dover, Pennsylvania, during one of these controveries, a pastor named Ray Mummert delivers the line that ends our tour and, in every real sense, sums it up.
'We've been attacked,' he says, 'by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture.'
And there you have it.
Idiot America is not the place where people say silly things. It is not the place where people believe silly things. It is not the place where people go to profit from the fact that people believe in silly things. That America has been with us always - the America of the medicine wagon and the tent revival, the America of the juke joint and gambling den, the America of lunatic possibility that in its own mad way kept the original revolutionary spirit alive while an establishment began to calcify atop the place. Idiot America isn't even those people who believe that Adam sat down under a tree one day and named all the dinosaurs. Those people pay attention. They take notes. They take time and spend considerable mental effort to construct a worldview that is round and complete, just as other Americans did before them.
The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of these things are part of it. The rise of Idiot America today reflects - for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power - the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert ..." (pgs. 6-8)
Maggie Jackson writes in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, 2009) -
“The premise of this book is simple. The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention - the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. Moreover, this disintegration may come at great cost to ourselves and our society. Put most simply, attention defines us and is the bedrock of society. Attention ‘is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought,’ wrote psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. ‘It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatter-brained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.’ James cam tantalizingly close to understanding at least one aspect of this mysterious phenomenon whose inner workings eluded philosophers, artists, historians, and scientists for centuries. But today, we know much more about attention, and all that we are learning only serves to underscore its irrefutable importance in life. Attention is an organ system, akin to our respiratory and circulation systems, according to cognitive neuroscientist Michael Posner. Attention, as James astutely understood, is the brain’s conductor, leading the orchestration of our minds. And its various networks are key not only to higher forms of thinking but to our morality and even our very happiness.
Yet increasingly, we are shaped by distraction. James described a clear and vivid possessing of the mind, an ordering, and a withdrawal. We easily recognize that these states of mind are becoming less and less a given in our lives. The seduction of alternative virtual universes, the addictive allure of multitasking people and things, our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion: these are markers of a land of distraction, in which our old conceptions of space, time, and place have been shattered. This is why we are less and less able to see, hear, and comprehend what’s relevant and permanent, why so many of us feel that we can barely keep our heads above water, and our days are marked by perpetual loose ends. What’s more, the waning of our powers of attention is occurring at such a rate and in so many areas of life, that the erosion is reaching critical mass. We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age.” (pgs. 13-14)
Jennifer L. Pozner writes in Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV (2010) -
“...[Y]oung women and men tell me that shows like ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Flavor of Love’ are ‘hilarious,’ ‘just TV, so no big deal,’ or more disturbingly, ‘realistic.’ I’m dismayed at how often I hear people mouthing the justifications media executives use to deflect accountability for biased content. They say that producers ‘are just showing us the way dumb-asses act,’ and since they ‘can’t put words in people’s mouths’ (a false assumption, as Frankenbites attest), any problematic representations are the fault of participants, not the responsibility of the networks that air these shows. ‘If these skanks want to act like they have no self-respect, that’s no the show’s fault,’ an MIT student insisted ...
Now when I screen clips, instead of snickering at cheesy narrators or blatant product placements that disrupt the flow of a show, students giggle when women sob after being dumped, when beautiful girls are badgered about their bodies, and when women of color go off on violent tirades. Girls used to ask me about the social and economic forces that might compel a woman to volunteer to have her appearance, personality, or romantic prospects savaged on TV. Now, girls regularly tell me they’re dieting to audition for ‘Top Model.’ Reality shows are appointment TV on many campuses I’ve visited. This pastime sometimes affects academic priorities and impacts the way educators work: A college in Boston rescheduled my visit because they’d inadvertently planned the lecture on an ‘American Idol’ night, and no one shows up for events when Idol’s on. The Millennial Generation seems to be getting more cynical (‘Of course it’s all bullshit, but it’s funny. Whatever.’) but less skeptical. That kind of mind-set makes advertisers salivate ...
[I]ntelligence and savvy do not immunize Millennials - or their parents or grandparents - from being ideologically and commercially influenced by media messages. I am concerned at the increasing uncritical ways I’ve seen students react to media over the last decade. I’d like to see serious scholarly investigation into what impact reality television’s portrayals of gender, race, class, sexuality, and consumerism may have on the expectations and worldview of viewers who’ve come of age with these shows.
In 2007, the Pew Research Center reported that 81 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds stated that being rich is the first or second most important goal in life for their generation, and 51 percent chose fame. Only 30 percent identified helping people in need as their peers’ top priorities; and just 22 percent said community leadership. My guess is that the wealth and semicelebrity status lavished on reality TV participants over the course of a decade has played a role in Millennials’ goals. Viewers of all ages do ourselves a disservice by watching reality TV with our intellects on pause. We can enjoy the catharsis and fantasy these shows offer, but unless we keep our critical filters on high, we leave ourselves open to serious manipulation.” (pgs. 30-32)
Andrew Keen writes in the Mark Bauerlein edited The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking (2011) -
"Another word for narcissism is 'personalization.' Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.
Instead of Mozart, Van Gogh, or Hitchcock, all we get with the Web 2.0 revolution is more of ourselves." (pg. 246)
Mark Bauerlein writes -
"Consider the Facebook phenomenon. The network dates back to 2004, but seems to have been around forever. In six years it has ballooned from a clubby undergraduate service at Harvard into a worldwide enterprise with more than 500 million users ... In the month of April 2003, Americans spent zero minutes on Facebook. In April 2009, they logged 13,872,640,000 minutes.
Or think about the rise of texting among the young. In September 2008, Nielsen reported that thirteen- to seventeen-year-olds with a mobile device averaged 1,742 text messages per month. A few months later, Nielsen raised the total to 2,272 texts per month, and by mid-2009 teens passed the 2,500 marker. In October 2010, Nielsen set the monthly amount at 3,339. At that pace, consumer behavior signals a lot more than convenience or trendiness." (pgs. ix-x)
Marilynne Robinson writes in When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012) -
“There are interpreters who insist on finding simplicity in just those matters where complexity is both great and salient. It is my feeling that reverence for the text obliges a respectful interest in its origins, and respect too for all its origins seem to imply about the kind of interpretation the text permits, as well as the kind it seems to preclude. I would say, for example, that the work of the group called the Jesus Seminar proceeded on assumptions that grossly simplify these questions and, in effect, impugn the authenticity of the text, as many writers have done over the last few centuries.” (pg. 131)
“It would seem that Americans have internalized a great prejudice against Christianity, assuming that it could not withstand the scrutiny of what they take to be a more intellectually sophisticated culture. How much anti-intellectualism, how much resentment of Europe and its influence, can be traced back to this prejudice? And how is it consistent with the belief that the church is the body of Christ, a belief I share, to think it has no intrinsic life to be relied on, and must, for the sake of its survival, be fastened to a more vigorous body, that of the nation? As I have said, this is precisely the wrong conclusion to be drawn in light of the many examples of nationalized and officialized religion that persist in the modern world. In general, this posture, this preemptive assault on secularism with all it entails, strikes me as frightened and antagonistic. Neither of these are emotions becoming in Christians or in the least degree likely to inspire thinking or action of a kind that deserves to be called Christian.” (pg. 136)
“The flourishing of these ideas, of neo-Darwinism in general, would not be possible except in the absence of vigorous and critical study of the humanities. Its ‘proofs’ are proof of nothing except the failure of education, in the schools and also in the churches.” (pg. 201)
“Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom. If antibiotics have been used without sufficient care and have pushed the evolution of bacteria beyond the reach of their own effectiveness, if nuclear fission has become a threat to us all in the insidious form of a disgruntled stranger with a suitcase, a rebuke to every illusion of safety we entertained under fine names like Strategic Defense Initiative, old Homer might say, ‘the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.’ Shakespeare might say, ‘There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’” (pg. 16)
“Whenever I hear monotheism or religious difference singled out as the great cause of conflict among peoples, I wish some part of the population at some time in their lives had been required to read Herodotus and Thucydides. The Commentaries on the Gallic War, that old staple of high-school Latin, could shed a little light on this very contemporary canard, a supposed insight that burst on us suddenly not because we had reached a pinnacle of enlightenment that allowed its truth to be realized at last but because whole literatures of relevant context had been, for all purposes, forgotten. How peaceful was the polytheistic world, in fact? Why did the nations so furiously rage together? Well, since we thought we knew all we needed to know about human nature, there seemed no longer to be any point in consulting human history.” (pg. 150)
"I have felt from a long time that our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull. I am persuaded as well that we educate ourselves and one another to think in terms that are demeaning to us all." (pg. 159)
(For a more comprehensive look at Robinson's latest book, click here.)