I open with a fascinating quote from Henry David Thoreau:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…we are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will lead through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
The quote is from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Though a bit dated (written in 1984), the book has some strong insights into modern American television culture. We don’t experience problems as a culture because the government is censoring information, Postman says. That’s what Orwell postulated in his book 1984. Instead, we’re much closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In Huxley’s book, the government takes control by giving us everything we want. The Orwellian government exercises power; the Huxleian government offers pleasure. Postman had this to say about how Huxley’s world relates to our own:
…in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
Postman says that television is our pleasure drug. And the difference between our world and Huxley’s, tragically, is that our government never intentionally tried to control our minds by pleasure. It merely happened of its own accord, because we allowed education and entertainment to become the same thing.
How this relates to the Thoreau quote: the telegraph signaled a dramatic shift from the written word to the transmitted, spoken word. To be sure, spoken word came first through oral tradition and tribal tales. But when the printing press was invented, it brought with it a new era of reason, thought and healthy discourse. Telegraph — and radio, internet and especially television to follow, have changed the way we receive information. Our problem is no longer that we don’t have enough information. Our problem is that we’re swimming in information.
How much information comes is completely irrelevant? Right now, I can open my iGoogle page and see that Allen Iverson isn’t coming back to the 76ers, and that the New York Mets are excited about a first base prospect named Ike Davis. Even worse, I can open my mini-feed on Facebook and know that Devoney Cooke is now a fan of John Piper (nice choice, by the way) and that Jake Kempf finally got the wifi to work. Or I can see that it’s Jon Colaco’s birthday. On Twitter, I can see Michigan basketball team’s starting lineup for a game at Minnesota tonight, or that Jon Acuff’s children will use marshmellows instead of fluff in their hot chocolate.
Or, perhaps, I can offer a quick prayer for Queen Adelaide’s whooping cough.