Monday, October 1, 2007

Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink

For my "Fiction and Film of the 1980s" graduate class at Loyola, I am reading a book called Amusing Oursevles to Death by Neil Postman. It's from the 80s (duh), and mostly focused on how the shift from a literary culture to a visual (tv) culture has degraded our public conversation. He speaks about how the information glut has decreased our "information-action ratio".

Here's how it works: the more information we have about the world that is irrelevant to our lives, the less action we can take in response to it. For instance, we learn that there are Buddhist monks protesting in Burma. What can we, here in America, as regular folks, really DO about that situation? Our options are limited. Back in the day, when all news was relevant to our geographic locale (like with regional newspapers) we felt less impotent, felt a sense of more control over our lives. Postman's theory states that we are left asking ourselves: "What I am I to do with all of this irrelevant, decontextualized information?" Make it into a diversion, an amusement, like crossword puzzles, Trivial Pursuit, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? This creates a pseudo-context, a "last refuge of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence and impotence." (p. 76)

So what's the answer? I dunno. I'm only half way through the book. I can hazard a guess. Follow folk-singer John Prine's advice in his song "Spanish Pipedream": "Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper, move to the country and build you a home, plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, and you'll find Jesus on your own." The more I learn about my job, the more I realize I'm teaching children how to wield a sword. It's still a weapon made for a war they will inevitably face; my only recourse is to teach them how to use it with honor.

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