This past summer we went out to eat breakfast at the Jersey Shore. A mom and her 18 month-old daughter were seated near us, and while the mother talked to others at her table, the toddler played with a tablet that had 24 short Disney cartoons on it. As young as she was, she was able to access a full screen menu of clips, select the one she wanted, and then watch it. As I talked to the folks at my table above the usual restaurant din, our conversation was annoyingly underscored by the character voices, sound effects, and music of the cartoons. Using her modern day pacifier, the baby never looked up, either at the people around her or at the boats bobbing on the bay or the sea gulls soaring above.
Last year we had a small family get-together to celebrate some birthdays. Two of my pre-teen granddaughters sat on the sofa staring at their phones. One was watching a video and the other was playing with software that allows you to produce movie trailers that rival what you see on the big screen. This saddened me because last year the girls would have been playing store or having a tea party for their American Girl dolls.
One more story: A few years ago a 20-year-old San Francisco State student was fatally shot on a crowded train. What makes the incident more appalling is that security cameras show the assailant taking the gun out several times, pointing it across the aisle, and even using the hand holding the gun to wipe his nose. None of the surrounding passengers noticed because they were too engrossed in their smartphones and tablets. They didn’t raise their heads until they heard a shot fired.
I reference these three anecdotal vignettes because they represent a broader pattern of behavior. I fear that our society is drowning in a digital stream of infotainment to the exclusion of the world around us, and I don’t think this bodes well for the human race. There are immediate and long-term dangers. One immediate risk is easy to cite. Behind-the-wheel texting is a huge problem. Experts tell us that it causes a 400% increase in time spent with your eyes off the road and can make a driver 23 times more likely to crash. Happy trails to you.
The long-term effects are only now being postulated. In the 1985 book by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he voiced his fear that television acts like a drug to medicate the masses and that their “addiction to amusement” impaired rational involvement. He warned that the end result might resemble Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which citizens bartered their rights in exchange for Soma, a hallucinogen that ensured a hangover-free high.
Might the apps, texts, and video provided on smartphones be our modern-day version of Soma? Are we and our children bartering away opportunities to interact with others or play in the sun or participate in civic life in exchange for dipping into the digital stream? Today one can watch House of Cards or play Candy Crush or check the weather forecast or get directions via GPS on a device smaller than a waffle. Granted, this is a miracle of modern technology, but I am old-fashioned enough to think that everything has a place, and I don’t believe the guy sitting next to me in a doctor’s office should be watching The Hangover, Part 2 with volume loud enough to hear across the room. I also don’t think that children should have childhood moments of play and wonder stolen from them by 24 hour access to movies and games. And if you think things are bad now, just wait until the Google Glass or something similar becomes more widespread. Wearing these Internet-connected spectacles, folks will be permanently cocooned in a media environment, and it will take the Last Judgment itself to wake them from their stupors.
Humankind has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to new situations. Our media-rich world would be astounding and perplexing to those who lived just 100 years ago. But is it conducive to our mental well-being? Psychiatrist Joel Gold has a book that discusses the biological and social factors that contribute to psychosis. In a New Yorker interview, he notes the impact of Times Square’s sensory overload and colliding pedestrians on residents’ mental health, “’If living in New York City is a risk factor, why not the Internet? We’re not saying, ‘Don’t let your children surf the Web–they will be psychotic.’ We are saying, ‘This is something we should think about.’” The interviewer, Andrew Marantz, follows up by adding, “Now sudden collisions are constant: a smartphone is a Times Square that we carry around in our pocket.”
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.