It was good to get outdoors this week and do a bit of walking in the woods. We have a nice park nearby with several trails amongst the trees. It does require a drive to get there, and that always feels wrong to me. Wrong enough that I don’t visit as frequently as I should. I think I’ll go again today.
Over the past week I’ve been reading Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. To be honest, I find it a bit dry and I kind of get the gist at a glance. I’ve considered putting it away in favor of someone else’s notes, but then that someone else (in this case Nate Eliason - someone I do not know) said:
Everyone needs to read this book. The observations were made in a pre-internet era, and they’re 10x as relevant today. Nothing will do more to help cure your information addiction that the healthy dose of reality provided in these pages.
It’s a 200-page book. I should be able to barrel through! At about halfway through I have definitely hit some interesting bits. Quote dump time!
First it’s pretty interesting to me to read discussion about “the telegraph” and feel like I could just replace it with “the internet”:
The telegraph may have made the country into “one neighborhood,” but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.
[M]ost of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the “information - action ratio.”
So what are the results of this “Peek-a-Boo World” the author describes?
You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself [a] series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold.
More than ever we are ingesting mountains of information that does not impact our daily lives. What do we do with it?
Where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use. The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context; the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful “Trivial Pursuit.” In one form or another, each of these supplies an answer to the question,“ What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?” And in one form or another, the, answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?
The book goes into much greater detail about what life was like before and after the telegraph (and photography and radio and television). At times it might get a bit “the world was better back then,” but not in a “people were happier and healthier” sort of false way, but in a true value judgement way as in “absorbing and processing knowledge through typography is a better state of being.” The author also points out that the entertainment and “junk” side of these technologies is probably the actual value of them. Those things fit the technology well and add value to our lives. The entertainment-izing and snippet-izing of news, politics, and so on does appear damaging to society and to each of us individually.
I haven’t come to my own conclusions as of yet. It’s apropos because this very newsletter is at times about sharing trivial information that isn’t going to impact anyone’s decision making within the context of their lives. I’ve also been considering starting a blog with similar bits and bobs of things I find on the Internet. Would that be contributing to the problem? On the other hand, this stuff is all written (typographic) and in theory I could write at further length and express ideas that add value to the conversation. On the other other hand, maybe this is just junk entertainment and shouldn’t require too much thought?
In a dramatic twist, it turns out this letter’s writing is probably more valuable to myself and others than my prior letters.
I’m listening to Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Somewhere along the line I bought a Lorin Maazel version (Spotify, Apple Music) and I’ve always loved it. It’s at parts beautiful and at parts crunchy and dark and nasty. My favorite track is “Act 2 - Romeo resolves to avenge Mercutio’s Death - Finale.” The cord hit at 3:46 is just gross. I love it!
As we come out of this year-long semi-quarantine (🤞), I hope we can all find a way to simplify. In some regards the infotainment world has been a useful distraction. Though I think it has also been easy to get darkly taken up into it. The dark side of immersing ourselves into it has led to damaging and deadly actions in the real world. In order to reduce the influence of the news-as-entertainment enterprise we do have to tune out and make that influence less valuable for the companies that are pursuing it.
There is a lot of talk about how “if something is free, you are the product.” That is definitely true of our data. While it is also true of our attention, I think in that regard we are the product in more enterprises than just those that are free. Or if we’re not the product, we are the catalyst that multiplies the value for companies pushing anger and outrage as their product.
How would it feel to stop subscribing to the nationwide or worldwide newsfeed? How would it feel to keep our finger on the lighter pulse of our local news and then move on with our days? Not only how would we feel, but how would we act differently?
Perhaps more walks in the woods are in all our futures, hopefully with friends, family, and neighbors.