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April 14, 2005

The Age of Missing Information

I am on vacation this week, staying at my parent's house in Montreal. I found a copy of Bill McKibben's 1992 book The Age of Missing Information. McKibben recorded and watched every program broadcast on his local cable system during a 24-hour period, then spent 24-hours on top of a mountain in the Adirondacks, and compared the two. According to the dust jacket, the question he asked was: Does having access to more information than ever mean that we know more than ever?

The first review on Amazon calls it "worthy but belabored" which is pretty accurate. Not surprisingly if you have read any of McKibben's writing (or even if you haven't), he decides that television is pretty stupid most of the time, and enjoying the soliture of nature is pretty nice. He spends 250 pages driving home this point; the best parts of the book (for me, cynical child of the end of the millennium) are when he snidely deconstructs the crud he sees on TV, which means he is unintentionally aping the emotional detachment that he vilifies.

These are some quotes from the book (the second is actually a quote from an essay called "The Hipness Unto Death" by Mark Crispin Miller):

"All the information offered by the natural world suggests that somewhere between the meaninglessness of lives lived in destitute struggle and the emptiness of life lived in swaddled affluence there is daily, ordinary life filed with meaning.

"[Television] has us automatically deplore or ridicule all anger, fear, political commitment, deep belief, keen pleasure, exalted self-esteem, tremendous love; and yet while making all these passions seem unnatural, the medium persistently dwells on their darkest consequences, teasing the household spectator with the hints of the intensity it has helped to kill."

"That reduction to absurdity--that mocking, knowing snicker--is so sad, because it shuts people's ears to the promise of this particular moment. Which is, simply, this: having immense amounts of technology available to us, this society could pick and choose those things that would create a life both sustainable and rich."

"Those of us who live in the north know that every few years a big snowstorm immobilizes us and turns off the power--and turns the world spectacularly peaceful. We forget that we have the power, and the right, to simulate the effects of a snowstorm as often as we want."

McKibben is not a real Luddite: he is not opposed to technology. He just wants less of it, sometimes. He's not so concerned about people who watch TV knowing less, as he is about them knowing less that matters, and therefore living less fulfilling lives.

The date McKibben watched was May 3, 1990. He lived in Fairfax, Virginia, and he describes the cable system as "enormous": 93 channels, which is pretty average these days. And of course, his book came out just before the Internet arrived, which vastly increased the amount of information available. However, it could be that the soul-sucking effect is more concentrated in television, with its entirely one-way, lowest-common-denominator stream of drivel. I'm sure McKibben thinks that people who spend all day emailing, blogging, IMing and surfing are missing out on life, but perhaps the Internet has some redeeming features that televison does not.

Posted by AdamBa at April 14, 2005 05:31 AM

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