December 22, 2011
Our Electronic Culture
I am in NYC. It is hard to ignore the pedestrians’ texting and surfing the internet while traversing the crowded streets, not to mention the visual blizzard of advertising including those thrown at us on a mini-screen in the back of a cab. Meanwhile I read the cheery news that new apps permit viewers to get behind the scenes information about the live television they are watching (one screen at a time is not enough). I go to a play (Seminar – it was terrific) and learn from the law student next to me that it is common practice for students to text the person being called on with helpful information (though he said at another school sometimes the students text insults). I knew there were reasons I banned electronic devices in my classrooms. I thought the ban would encourage dialogue (instead of staring at a screen, a student might look at a fellow student), discourage multitasking (the evidence seems clear that students cannot do it); cut down on those who think that taking notes is a thoughtless exercise in stenography; and I do not mind the reduction of clatter. But I had no clue that this texting is going on in classes (fortunately not in mine, at least not “legally”). How naïve of me!
My youngest son Jacob is here with Neesa and me. He does not own a television. His electronic sin is to stream Netflix on his computer and he is thinking of cancelling his subscription. He thinks that owning a television gets in the way of communicating with people, reading books, and the like. I heard a talk by thriller writer (and Cornell Law grad), Barry Eisler (if you like Japan, the martial arts, want to learn about the art of surveillance with plot twists here and there – you will like his first book) in which he argued that he does not own a television, mainly, as I understood him, so that he could get more writing and reading done.
I admire these perspectives, but I am an addict. I own a television, computers, and an i-pod touch. (I have drawn the line at smart phones and i-pads). I value the entertainment that television provides and the music and podcasts on my i-pod. But I probably watch television too much and definitely use a computer for more frivolity than any sensible life would include.
In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a great book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was based on a talk he gave in Germany on a panel devoted to Orwell’s 1984. Influenced by the Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Postman argued that the greatest threat to modern society was the addiction to amusement, not oppression by the state.
Postman’s book changed the life of Jacob. I wonder if Eisler read it as well. If you have not, I recommend it. And while you are it, you might check out the second edition of The Death of Discourse by Ron Collins and David Skover. It is a maddening book in some ways, particularly in its purported failure to take a position. But the book assembles powerful evidence that Huxley and Postman were well ahead of their time.
It was bad before; it has gotten worse.
cross-posted at religiousleftlaw.com
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Nice post, Steve. Like you, I am an addict but (like Jacob?), I wish I were less of one.
Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 22, 2011 10:17:12 AM
Thanks, Steve, for the reminder about Postman. I'm going to go back to that book, which is around the house somewhere (underneath some DVDs and Wii games? :) )
Posted by: Tom Berg | Dec 23, 2011 1:23:10 PM
My father, who for a period of time, worked in The Electonics Industry,in one of his dissertations, wrote about how technical innovation always leads to change. No doubt, the media of communication has had tremendous effects on society. The fundamental challenge has always been how to adapt knowledge and objectives to enhance the life of the people leading to growth and prosperity in both our nation and the world. A minimum of human imput will greatly magnify output, which is why it is enevitable that the message being sent, if it does not reflect The Common Good, has always had the potential to anethesize us to the point that we compromise our values, and technology no longer serves The Common Good.
Posted by: Nancy D. | Dec 24, 2011 8:32:08 AM