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Decline of American civilisation: are the dark ages coming?

By Rob Denehy - posted Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Trends in American culture, education and communications may be creating a perfect storm of ignorance. The obsession with “news” is exceedingly ironic. Articles reach high circulation and prominence through their “newsiness”. This term was coined by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, and he attempted to define it, more by example than explicitly.

News today must contain a novel component. The true human condition around the world is not represented very adequately by the popular outlets - people don't want to read about anarchy in Somalia or cultural, political, or religious outrages that occur around the world. Nor do they seem to have much interest in the political process or discussion of political or economic issues despite the recent enthusiasm over President Barack Obama. (That honeymoon seems to be cooling off a bit as reality sets in and hope holds on for dear life.) Of course, I speak as an outside observer with limited first-hand exposure to people under 40, except in everyday commerce (grocery store, restaurant, and so on).

Two books on my recent book list have reinforced my belief that young people are moving away from serious social involvement. I don't mean that there's something wrong with them because they don't debate Marx over dinner, or because they don't ponder the track of our society or civilisation and the lifestyle changes that may be coming down the road (although a little pondering wouldn't be a bad idea). I mean that they seem to be more observers of reality than participants.


The first book, Distracted, the Erosion of Attention and the coming Dark Age (by Maggie Jackson, Prometheous Books), focuses on the everyday environment of young people and how they spend their time. If the author is to be believed, multi-tasking is a way of life for young people, to the extent that their attention shifts every three minutes to a new object or situation. Incoming texts, IMs, Internet forums to check in on, TV to watch, phone calls to return, and sometimes socialising face-to-face. And now online social networking such as Facebook and “tweeting”. It seems that young people have adapted to the communications revolution quite readily. The problem is that this revolution has bombarded them with input from multiple directions, and and I wonder if their attention span, or even their ability to focus (maintain attention) is perhaps diminishing.

Another aspect of this media bombardment is the lack of time or value given to contemplation or any sort of contemplative activity. I remember Socrates’s adage “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I've always taken this to be a recommendation for occasionally contemplating life and one’s place in the universe. Contemplation requires leisure - and quiet surroundings where no demands are being made on our attention. Try finding such an environment short of a church or a library!

When communications, or at least input, comes too quickly, there is not enough time to digest, interpret, and retain the information. The quick context-switching required of people in an “interrupt-driven” (Jackson's term) environment means that information is, in essence, more like raw data. Essential facts are gleaned as quickly as possible. Dynamics behind the facts, or relationships to other areas are never explored for a better understanding of underlying causes and mechanisms. In short, the world becomes a chaotic place full of bits of data that are not firmly grounded in anything.

The logical extrapolation of this phenomenon is that the next generation will be less able to react rationally to changes in the world around them because they will lack the context in which to interpret events. A lack of depth will have them searching around the Internet for the site with the answer.

The other book on my list was The Dumbest Generation, How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (by Mark Bauerlein, The Penguin Group). This book portrays the situation similarly, but with the focus on the resulting state of knowledge among younger people. The “information revolution” seems to have devolved into the entertainment centre for the next generation. Paris Hilton, political blogs (many being tremendous volumes of hot air!), Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and so on, serve up minute-to-minute reports on all the “action”.

I've seen only a limited number of these things, but one such “stream-of-consciousness” set of daily postings that I did read was so disconnected and vague, or alternatively, glaringly personal, that I was astounded. The trivial seems to take up all of their attention, with nothing left over to contribute to the world around them. There seems no sense among these people that what they do matters, they feel a lack of control over their environment that does not bode well for political involvement. The overload issue combines and contributes to a lack of received knowledge from education. According to some testing, today's 7th graders have less practical knowledge than those of 50 years ago, despite the proliferation of resources that children and teens are exposed to and have at their disposal.


The fact that popular culture has taken over all of these media is discouraging. A tremendous amount of profit is generated by the television industry (even if the occasional network has financial difficulties), and it dishes out stuff that will keep the audience tuned in. Supposedly, in an open society with free speech, the “market” will have print and visual media doing just that - meeting the demands of consumers.

Is this really the right way to frame the issue, though? There is certainly a “free market” in speech in America, in the sense that any “entrepreneur” can go out to the street corner and get on a soapbox preaching whatever he likes as long as it's not “hate speech”. But if you follow the market analogy, the root problem becomes apparent: a small number of people and organisations have power over the media, and there are outrageously high barriers to get your message broadly spread (unless it fits into one of the sensational categories that are consider “newsy” enough). The media/cultural circus has a lot of biases and sensationalism in it. This probably reflects the state of mankind's psyche - if such a concept has any validity.

So are the digital age and the dumbing of America something I should be concerned about as an American citizen? Certainly. But I wonder to what extent these trends are consistent around the world. I suspect these values have penetrated, to a greater or lesser degree, most societies that have achieved a standard of living that allows television and Internet access. But I also believe, like with many world trends, that America is still in the vanguard!

So I appeal to the Australian people - try to keep some sanity in your cultural and political affairs, and don't let Rupert Murdoch buy all of your newspapers!

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About the Author

Rob Denehy was born and raised in New England. He has a BS in Math and Computer Science from Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA and worked as an analyst for investor-owned electric utility for 15 years. Rob is currently semi-retired. His interests include jazz, economics, epistemology, and motorcycles.

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