Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

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.

Photo Credit

Thoughts for the Proper Use of Technology

Last week I dove into the topic of technology with my thoughts on cell phone use.   Today, in reflection of a short article I read at The Catholic Land Movement blog, I’d like to pass on some ideas I found there for discussion.

In his article, Principles for the Proper Use of Technology, Kevin Ford offers three principles to help guide our thinking about how and when we should use technology.

Like Kevin, I have a healthy fear that we are swallowing every new thing with nary a thought to the ramifications on individual, family or community life.

This bothers me and like Kevin, I’d like to explore a bit, ask some questions and in the end, be unafraid to make significant changes if that is what is called for.

Here are Kevin’s three essential elements for the proper use of technology.

1. Technology should benefit the family and the community.

2. If a lesser technology can be used without great detriment of time, labor, or money then it should be used.

3. Technology must serve the common good.

As I reflect on my thoughts about buying a cell phone in light of these three principles, I begin to come to the conclusion – for this time at least – that we may not need to spend $150+ every month to own cell phones.

Principle two leads me to this conclusion – a lesser technology that is far cheaper is available.  We can install a land line and meet most all of our communication needs.

This of course could change as our life changes.  But it seems at least a feasible conclusion for now.

How about you?

What do you think about his three principles?  Are they helpful in guiding our use of technology?

Use Your Cell Phone Like It’s 1985

I am on the verge of buying my wife and I cell phones here in the states.   We don’t own any as we have just returned from four and a half years overseas and so buying cell phones seems the thing to do.  Everyone’s doing it right?

It may seem funny to some, but I am honestly considering not – as in not buying cell phones. Really.

Call me weird, but before deciding to move to Turkey five years ago we didn’t have cell phones, a TV, the Internet or a toaster – just kidding, at our house we love toast.

In Istanbul, a city of nearly 15 million, we bought a cell phone for each of us and were happy to have had them. They made life easier, kept us connected and provided a much needed sense of security.

But as of a week ago we are back in rural South Dakota.   I am attempting in our return to live intentionally with my time and our money and the way I use technology – cell phones included. You see I want to use technology, to be its master and would like to keep it from becoming the other way around.

I have to be careful here of course.  I am not saying cell phones are bad but I am trying to carefully consider how I use them.  They are an amazing tool that can powerfully impact our personal experience in wonderful ways.

But, that doesn’t mean I need to swallow them whole hog. And that is why, if I do get a cell phone, I am going to endeavor to use it like it’s 1985.

Here are a few things that never happened in 1985:

  • Your best friend never stopped talking to you over dinner to talk with someone else a hundred miles away on their cell phone.
  • You were never distracted at movies, Church services or your kid’s school program by someone running out while holding their hand over their cell phone to muffle the Elton John ringtone.
  • You were never interrupted by telemarketers over dinner while eating out – that was reserved for eating with your family at home.
  • You never ignored your kids while you were “playing” with them in order to check the score, the stock market, play Angry Birds or to watch a Chris Farley video on Youtube (guilty as charged).
  • There were never any car crashes related to texting while driving. (No train crashes either)
  • You never dropped a call because you were driving through a tunnel.  You sometimes dropped the phone, but it was always there, dangling by its cord, waiting to be picked up.
  • You never upgraded your phone on a yearly basis just because a newer model came out. In all of your life up until that point you may have upgraded twice – once when they introduced the touch pad to replace your old rotary phone and the next time when they came out with the cordless phone.
  • You never needed to have your wife call you so you could find your cell phone stuck in the couch cushions. The real phone was bolted to the wall in the kitchen. It never got lost.

Before the cell phone, it seems we lived pretty healthy, well-adjusted lives – most people did anyway. If someone called, and you were not at home, the phone just rang.

It just hung there on the wall and rang.

After a few moments of unanswered ringing, the caller would think to herself, “Hmmm. No one seems to be home. I guess I’ll try back later.And life went on. Few people died because of unanswered phones.

But today, people having a heart to heart conversation with a friend, a spouse or their kids seem to have no problem dropping them to answer their cell phones (guilty as charged again).  This seems like a problem.

My son is eight years old. I’ve had to occasionally reprimand him when, upon the smallest distraction, he will wander away from an adult who is trying to talk with him. It’s rude to just turn and walk away from someone who is talking and yet, if I examine my own life and the lives of most adults in his life, isn’t he just mimicking what he observes in us?

The funny thing is that it wasn’t always this way.  I found a 2002 USA Today article that had this to say:

Most cell phone culprits inherently are ill-mannered underachievers. Getting a phone call in a public place and carrying on a long, loud conversation gives these wannabes a feeling of importance.

Ouch. It was just twelve years ago and yet it is strange to think how far we’ve come (or gone).

And so, if I purchase a cell phone in the next few weeks, I’m going to try to use it like it is 1985.

I won’t nail it to the wall in our home.  Nor will I  leave it sitting on the counter in the kitchen.  I will however work to not let it control me.  If I am free to answer it when it rings, I’ll answer it.

If however, I am with another person, if I am working on a project, if I am playing with my kids or enjoying my morning quiet time – I’ll just have to let it ring.

Now I am no Luddite. I am not opposed to cell phones. They are powerful tools that can be tremendously helpful. I just want to use it on my own terms. I want to use it as a tool, not be at its every beck and call.

When I was living in Istanbul, I always had a rule. If I was talking with someone, I would never answer my cell phone unless it was Consuelo – my wife gets preferential treatment.  Everyone else got ignored.

But not really ignored. You see that is the great thing about technology – I always knew whose call I had missed and was able – after finishing up my conversation – to call them back.

And no one ever got mad at me for that. On the contrary, everyone was completely understanding, even appreciative that I had called them back.

Cell phones are as much a part of our lives as the clothes we wear.  There are many amazing opportunities that exist because of them and they are often a powerful force for good.

I guess I just want to slow down a little, to consider all the ramifications before I dive back in.  And then I want to work to use them as best I can.

What are your thoughts about cell phone use?