Last week, the president warned a graduating class against a few gadgets and toys, iPods, iPads, Xboxes and PlayStations, where "information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation," but this could easily describe nearly all of our media, with Obama, like the rest of our ruling class, a prime beneficiary. As our entire society unravels and the Gulf of Mexico becomes a dead sea, what do you find on television but singing and dancing contests, huge people losing weight, pregnant teens and endless sports? That is, the usual stuff, all noise and no consequences.
The age of mass media coincides, roughly, with the oil era. Before the 20th century, there were no radios, televisions, movies or recorded music, only newspapers. Oil provided the perfect fuel for the combustion engine. With it, cars and airplanes became possible, shortening distance and making the local less relevant or even real, the same effects achieved by the mass media.
When I went from Philadelphia to Hanoi in 1995, I was definitely there and not here, since there were no internet cafés to keep me in both places. I could not email or check how the Phillies were doing. When I went to Iceland in 2007, each second I spent online distracted me from the magnificence of that country. It's true that all media displace us, even a book, but at least with reading, the imagination is activated and one has control over the pacing, that is, one can slow down, pause and reflect. Not so with television.
Microsoft asked, "Where do you want to go today?" How about nowhere. I just want to be here. Now. Do you know where you are? Eating dinner, the married couple slouch on a couch, their eyes fixated on the garrulous screen. They chat only during commercials, thanks to the mute button. "How was your day, hon?" In separate rooms, the kids are transfixed by their own screens.
No mass media is as pervasive or intrusive as the American one. Now that we've stopped making stuff, more or less, we're still super prolific at selling our own image. (That and 155 billion dollars' worth of weapons of mass destruction annually, 41% of global sales worldwide.) When I was in Vietnam from 1999 to 2001, I had the hardest time convincing friends that, no, Americans don't spend the bulk of their time lounging by the pool, dancing, rapping and tossing money into the air. To quote Harold Pinter, "As a salesman [America] is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner."
This hypnosis works even on Americans, who should know better. But we don't live here so much as inside media. The average American watches four hours of television a day, listens to constant music, and there's also the internet with its Facebook, texting, twitter and email, etc, to distract him. Two or more of these activities are often indulged in simultaneously. In a third of American households, the television is never turned off.
For many of us, our first impulse upon entering a new space, be it country, city or room, is to escape it. I must get online. Staring at a computer, a person can flit from NBA playoffs to Katherine Heigl, to a napping and slumping Ken Griffey Jr., to porn, to the boxscore of a game he doesn't give a damn about, to Gisele Bundchen, to Elena Kagan. Gulf oil spill? What Gulf oil spill?
The problem with the media is not that there's no meat in it, but by stuffing lard, blood, scrapple, gristle, chicken mess, acorn, corn syrup, sawdust, meat and whatever else into an unending sausage, nothing could be isolated long enough for anything to matter, not even the tortured death of a nation or a planet. Everything has become a blip in a gush of tedious entertainment, even Abu Ghraib and Goldman Sachs outrages. Of course, in this diseased system, fluff weighs more, since it benefits the Washington and Wall Street criminals to have us fixated on Simon Cowell, Rihanna or some dancing parrot.
Our basic social needs, to mingle, see each other face to face and chatter, have been supplanted by the virtual, with chatrooms and forums replacing taverns and squares. In your typical bar nowadays, the patrons must shout in brief spurts, since the music is too loud for a sustained conversation. Eyes are most often glued to a bright TV. So much for the drinking hole as a social space, and music as occasional and celebratory.
Simply put, our culture is hostile to thinking and talking. About the only American environment where discussions are encouraged, or just made possible, is the university, but these are conducted mostly by people without dirt under their fingernails, hence the gross disconnect between the academy and the rest of us.
In Italy, there's a quaint custom known as the passegiatta. For a couple hours before dinner, people actually hang out or walk around their local square. This bonding and soothing practice embraces even foreigners. This is not possible here because we don't have the proper spaces. Our few squares are landscaped, with paths dictating traffic, unlike an open piazza that encourages congregrating and loitering, that allows free movement and wide vistas. In most American localities, there are no squares at all, only shopping mall food courts.
Our typical mall is surrounded by an oil spill. Here and there, a half-assed berm. Once you've gone through the hassle of driving there, then looping back and forth to seize a parking space, you might as well spend a few hours inside the air conditioning and fork over a Ben Franklin or two. It's designed for that. At a square, however, you can buy nada and not feel like you've wasted your time. With home shopping, even this degraded mingling inside mall can be dispended with altogether.
Cocooned in a virtual universe, many of us can no longer see or care that our real world is being destroyed. In March of 2010, a Korean couple was charged with starving their 3-month-old baby to death, even as they spent twelve hours a day at an internet café, raising a virtual one, Anima. Like them, we've been seduced into nurturing a ghost while our souls die.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, with a novel, Love Like Hate, scheduled for July. He's tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.