A number of years ago I was riding around the country roads of rural South Dakota near my in-laws’ farm on a four wheeler with my two young kids. We were exploring the countryside, stopping to throw rocks off of low bridges into muddy brown creeks, tracing the arc of a soaring hawk and occasionally, pulling into abandoned farm yards to poke around. There are always surprises to find, history to discover and a story to be told in a leaning barn or crumbling house. Up one such driveway we found an abandoned home that was still standing, albeit open to the elements from every broken window and dangling door. Like so many of its kind, after the residents moved out, the house became a sort of storage shed, a place to put the things someone didn’t really want around but couldn’t bring themself to throw away. And like so many makeshift storage units, the contents were soon forgotten, overrun by rats and raccoons and the decay of time.
As we climbed the broken down steps onto the front porch and gazed through the doorway with its screen door clinging crookedly by a single remaining hinge, we wondered about the family that had lived here. How long had they been gone? Why did they leave? And who dumped the enormous pile of clothes and pots and pans and other household items in the middle of the floor of the kitchen. It looked like a bomb had gone off on moving day. We stepped inside tentatively, aware that at any moment we might disturb a sleeping raccoon or some other animal that we might not really want to meet. The place was a moldy mess and yet the story of the family that had once lived there still hung in bits and pieces around us. A calendar on the wall, brittle with age, carried in its days the happenings of their weeks. A shelf with a few books destroyed by the rain that poured through a hole in the roof gave hints of their interests – gardening, faith, western novels. The colors of the carpet and curtains – had we been from an older generation – would have inevitably told of the decade they were installed.
It was mostly the tale of the decay and the kids were keen to leave before we stumbled onto something that might bite us. One last look around though revealed something worth exploring several feet from the open doorway. On top of an old heater unit in the living room sat a small, white diary. The cover was embossed with the year, 1969, and inside were page after page of the weekly doings of this family, recorded religiously in the small space for each day of the week. Sundays were nearly always spent at church in the “forenoon”, winter days were regularly accompanied by a note about the temperature – February 3rd hit a low of 12 below and was cloudy – and there were matter of fact notes about the farm chores that were completed on the particular day – January 28th – “Butchered drake (duck)”.
It all seemed rather normal except for one thing: every week this family would either visit or receive visits from neighbors. Sometimes two and three times a week – almost always in the evenings – there were social visits being made. Community was an ever present part of this family’s life. To my modern experience this seemed odd. Not odd in the crazy uncle sort of way but rather, odd in that we just don’t live like that anymore. We text our friends a few times a week at best but we don’t spend time together, not like they did.
Something has changed. Something drastic really. I can find pictures and stories in the archives of any small town newspaper of Saturday nights where hundreds of neighbors showed up on Main street to visit and dance and share life together. Boys gathered over bottles of Coca Cola to talk about the Yankees and school and girls. Ladies shared recipes and stories and prayers for their children. Men complained about the weather, argued about politics and discussed last week’s sermon. We talk of our small towns as “communities” because they truly used to be communities, places where people regularly “communed”. We ought perhaps to find a new word to use to describe our communities.
So what happened? What changed that the average evening for the average American now looks like a face in front of a screen rather than a face to face? Social anthropologists could probably explain what happened with studies and stats but I think the main thing that happened was the screen itself. It started perhaps with the television but has evolved so that our innate narcissistic tendencies are now fed wall to wall entertainment. Who needs community when there is Netflix?
A few things should be noted in this. First, we accepted this reality without a moment’s hesitation or reflection on what it might actually do to us. We were like the proverbial frog in the pot of water set to boil. We swallowed the television whole hog and then the Internet in our homes and then in our pockets and on our wrists. We occasionally lament the content – violence in the video games and porn on the smartphone in the average teen’s pocket – but we do very little about it. Second, the content is not nearly as destructive as the medium itself. Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, warned us before the Internet had even hit the screen.
No one listened.
Every medium used to communicate information, every system used to accomplish a desired goal has both intended and unintended consequences. They create behaviors. They shape our lives in ways we rarely expect. By the time we recognize the problems, it’s often too late.
And so television brought entertainment into our living rooms. It brought the news of the world into our homes. We could know about almost any topic with television and even more with the advent of the cable networks and virtually everything with Google. But while we are solving problems in our world faster than ever (a positive outcome) we are also creating problems at an alarming rate and we are increasingly, all alone. We have traded the birthright of community for a bowl of entertainment. We get to see every move (or Tweet) our politicians make and yet it’s all sound bites and entertainment. Our compassion for the downtrodden refugees of war is replaced with outrage over a politician’s missteps which is forgotten with a football player’s improprieties. And this all happens in the course of any given day. The next day we start all over.
Television and now the Internet has changed the way we interact with our world. We can argue over the scale of the benefits and problems that have come with that, but we must all agree that it has changed our society. The way we communicate, the way we interact, the way we learn and grow and disagree have all been changed. The medium, not the content, is responsible for that change.
The system is creating us anew.
I write all of this, not to merely warn against the unintended consequences of television and the Internet. You can read Postman for that and I’d encourage you to do so soon. I certainly need to reread it for I too often find myself endlessly scrolling Facebook rather than gathering with friends and family.
I also ask these questions because if it is true that the mediums of communication and the systems of life we have adapted shape the ways in which we interact, learn, and live, then we would do well to pause and reflect on all the ways this plays into the forming of our lives in other areas.
What about the systems we’ve adopted for education at schools, and religious formation at churches has created unintended consequences? Why do we produce so few lifelong learners through our educational systems? Why do so many churches create consumer driven Christians? What about the mediums and systems we’ve adapted for school and church lead to these outcomes?
These are questions that I hope our next generations will do better at reflecting on than my generation has?
Our future probably depends on it.