by David McElroy
You’re sitting in front of a television screen and you absently switch from channel to channel to channel with a remote control. You’re distracted. Bored. Your mind is elsewhere. But before you know it, you’ve spent an hour or more watching things that were only mildly interesting — and you don’t know why.
I’ve done that. I suspect almost everybody has.
The pervasive power of television to take over my life was one of the factors which led to me eliminating TV programming from my life for the most part years ago. (I’ve written about that before and talked about the influence of Neil Postman’s book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which I still strongly recommend.)
After I quit watching television, I thought I had taken permanent control of the “media ecology” around me and that I had control of which messages were going to bombard me, but I was wrong. I didn’t see social media coming and I had no idea what the web would evolve into as a whole.
Today, I don’t sit in front of a television with a remote control. I sit in front of a MacBook and go through a dizzying array of websites which make what I watched on television seem manageable by comparison. Once again, I find myself struggling against a pervasive popular culture — coming to me through a wildly popular medium — in an effort to control my time and my thoughts.
Social media snuck up on me.
I never dreamed what a time sink that Facebook would be — or Twitter or Instagram or YouTube. I find value in all of them at times, but I find the signal-to-noise ratio lower and lower. I’m feeling impatient — much as I did when I realized that I had to break myself of watching television.
I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the time I waste online. I’m impatient with the pervasive feeling that I’m constantly being bombarded with banality and opinions and anger.
I’m increasingly aware of how painfully short life is and the degree to which the clock is ticking every single day.
I’m constantly reminded of lines from an old Steve Taylor song which say, “Life’s too short for small talk, so don’t be talking trivia now. Excess baggage fills this plane; there’s more than we should ever allow.” More and more of what I experience around me seems like excess baggage today.
I have a strong desire to cut back further and further on those sorts of things which eat into my limited time — so I can spend time on the very few things which really matter to me. We all have different priorities about what matters in this world, but I’m convinced that almost all of us allow the “excess baggage” to take up more of our time than whatever we claim does matter to us.
One reason I’m disturbed by modern culture — by our entire way of living — is that I increasingly see it as a drug that distracts us from what’s important about being alive. That’s clearly a subjective value judgment, so I can’t prove it or claim it must be true for you. I can’t even draw neat little lines between what’s an acceptable distraction and what’s too much.
I really don’t know how to answer that.
I just know that as people have more choices for entertainment and diversion, they have less time when their minds turn inward and listen to the quieter voices and questions inside themselves. They’re so busy that they see little reason to think or feel in ways that aren’t dictated by their culture.
I’m convinced that it’s important to quiet our minds and get “bored” enough that we listen to ourselves and find the things about life that are deeper than the cheap thrills that we so willingly soak up from the culture.
As long as we’re eagerly guzzling the drug of entertainment, we don’t even know there’s anything missing — and we’re not forced to turn to each other to find intimate ways of growing together.
The late Ray Bradbury saw this coming long before most people did. In his brilliant 1953 novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” Bradbury looked at a world in which all books were banned but the daily culture around Americans was filled with electronic messages — television, radio and advertising of all sorts.
When Bradbury’s protagonist, Guy Montag, steals a book which shouldn’t even still exist, he tries to read it, but his mind has been so dulled by the media culture around him that he finds he can’t make sense of it. Worse, he finds he can’t even concentrate on more than a few words because of being bombarded by media messages.
Montag’s wife has a television at home that covers entire walls and she has a deeper relationship with her television “family” than she does with her husband. On a subway train, Montag tries once more to figure out the words in an unfamiliar book — which you might recognize in the passage — but he has to fight the sound being blasted at him:
Shut up, thought Montag. Consider the lilies of the field.
They toil not-
Consider the lilies of the field, shut up, shut up.
He tore the book open and flicked the pages and felt them as if he were blind, he picked at the shape of the individual letters, not blinking.
“Denham’s. Spelled : D-E.N ”
They toil not, neither do they . . .
A fierce whisper of hot sand through empty sieve.
“Denham’s does it!”
Consider the lilies, the lilies, the lilies…
“Denham’s dental detergent.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” It was a plea, a cry so terrible that Montag found himself on his feet, the shocked inhabitants of the loud car staring, moving back from this man with the insane, gorged face, the gibbering, dry mouth, the flapping book in his fist. The people who had been sitting a moment before, tapping their feet to the rhythm of Denham’s Dentifrice, Denham’s Dandy Dental Detergent, Denham’s Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice, one two, one two three, one two, one two three. The people whose mouths had been faintly twitching the words Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice. The train radio vomited upon Montag, in retaliation, a great ton-load of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass. The people were pounded into submission; they did not run, there was no place to run; the great air-train fell down its shaft in the earth.
“Lilies of the field.”
“Lilies, I said!”
The people stared.
“Call the guard.”
“The man’s off–”
The train hissed to its stop.
“Knoll View!” A cry.
“Denham’s.” A whisper.
Montag’s mouth barely moved. “Lilies…”
This is the way I’m increasingly feeling in the pop culture of social media. It’s bombarding me with messages and it’s making me feel that I owe my time to a monster that is eating my attention span. I haven’t broken away from it yet — and I might not choose to break the ties entirely — but I know something has to change.
I suspect that’s true for hundreds of millions of people, maybe more. I just don’t know how many have become conscious of the degree to which the voices of the popular media have taken over their thoughts and feelings.
There was a day when pop culture represented rebellion against a stale and repressive “adult culture.” Shia LaBeouf said, “In my parents’ generation, rebellion was pop culture. It’s not anymore.” He’s right. Popular culture didn’t change the world at large. Instead, the most dangerous elements of media simply took control of pop culture. What was once rebellion is now conformity to something which tends to keep more and more of us from exercising our ability to think — and away from our desperate need for self-reflection.
I’m trying to change my own life — just as I did back when I decided to cut out television — but I have to fight against my own habits and against much of what the culture throws at me every single day. I’m trying to think and talk and write more about the things which I believe matter. I’m trying to understand more about truth that I can find only in silence, not in the blaring messages driven by commerce and screaming voices.
I know there’s more to life than simply entertainment and pleasure. I know that truth goes deeper than what can be simplistically explained in popular theology. I know that love and understanding and belonging will always matter to those who can break free of voices pushing toward both pleasure and hatred.
To pursue meaning and transcendent truth in this world is an act of rebellion against pretty much every institution and authority, but that’s what gives life purpose for me. And in order to pursue the things I know are meaningful, I have to tame the monster of pop culture which is trying to control my mind and own my soul.