Distilling the Essence | Distilling the Essence


Students always want the teacher to tell them what parts of the textbook they’ll actually need to read. Which pages are going to be on the test? Likewise, one especially lowbrow news magazine underlines the important words and key phrases, as if all their readers were busy executives, skimming reports submitted by underlings, looking for the meaty stuff.

If we’re all in a hurry, then we’re all compelled to stop beating around the bush and find the skinny. The problem lies when the bush dies and the skinny has no substance. Once you start reading bullet points, it’s hard to go back to real reading. I recently used Microsoft’s Auto Content Power Point Wizard to reduce John Milton’s “Ode to Blindness” to four Power Point slides. When asked what type of presentation I was preparing, I clicked “Bad News.” Try it. It’s a fun game.

It’s funny because it’s creepy and real at the same time. And it should come as no surprise that when words squeeze into emails, they lose most of their beauty.

Recently, I’ve read several articles suggesting that what we think of as reality is actually just a video game programmed by an advanced civilization with really big computers. It’s a hologram, and although it’s terribly convincing, there are still little artifacts to be discovered that prove its artificiality.

I’m sure the idea isn’t new; in fact, there’s probably a first-century church edict condemning such a fallacy, but it’s an idea whose time is especially ripe, now that most people spend more time paying attention to their televisions, cell phones, and computers than to their families.

More communication is not always beneficial. The fact that I can click a mouse a few times to discover whom Cameron Diaz is currently dating does not make my life richer than it was before I bought a computer. Likewise, all the electronic and verbal noise makes it hard to enjoy retreat from its very presence.

Thirty years ago, social critic Ivan Illich lamented a future where silence will have been co-opted by all the electronic voices yakking for our attention. Before the invention of the loudspeaker, all men and women essentially had the same opportunity to be heard. With the introduction of amplified sound, all that matters is access to the microphone. By selectively amplifying the voices of a few, the rest are effectively silenced.

The older I get, the less impressed I am by more of anything. And I resent self-centered decisions made by others that lessen my choices in life. The fact that I can’t get a young person’s attention because he’s text messaging on his cell phone or listening to his iPod would be moot if I weren’t a college teacher.

Illich was prescient when he wrote, in his 1982 essay, “Silence as Commons,” “The machine-like behavior of people chained to electronics constitutes a degradation of their well-being and of their dignity which, for most people in the long run, becomes intolerable. Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical. . . . people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed.”

Maybe the evil behind all this is the concept of broadcasting itself. One of the criticisms leveled against radio when it first began was that no one would pay good money for a receiver to listen to messages meant for no one in particular. The telephone they could appreciate, but what would radio be good for?

Well, people fell in love with broadcasting big time. In the 1920s, the first decade of commercial radio, Amos ’n Andy became so popular that all business halted for 15 minutes while the show aired. The White House shut down for a quarter of an hour. Even movie theaters had to stop the film for that interval.

Turns out there’s a strong human instinct for everyone to experience the same thing at the same time. Everyone wants to be in the loop. People draw immense satisfaction over snickering at the same comedian, scorning the same rogues, and admiring the same heroes.

It’s probably not a good thing that those characters we spend so much mental energy on are phantoms. Spiderman and his superhero friends absorb 2 percent of our public consciousness, and more people are worried about the latest CSI episode than the national deficit. Maybe this preoccupation with the nonexistent has always been the case. I mean, the Crusades were sort of a mass hallucination that happened a millennium before broadcasting.

But what lies at the core of our need to continually transmit and receive? I imagine it’s the desire to be noticed. Status. Power. Sex. I’d say “love,” but I don’t think that figures into it as much as the more elemental desires. Communication is the handmaid of survival. Mass communication is what has made Lindsay Lohan a household name, and Hillary Duff more well-known than Beverly Sills.

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