Dumbing Down America

Written by Admin. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 09, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
20 November 1996

pen2If the 1990s can serve as a guide to the future, the 21st century will be the century of sound bites. CNN, USA Today, the world-in-brief sections in most local newspapers are all thriving on the use of sound bites to inform their viewers and readers about what’s going on in the world.

We have heard people state that the technologies available today have made this possible, taking as an example, CNN and its 24-hour news reportage. It has also been said that the explosion of the information on and access to the Internet and World Wide Web have also changed the way we get our news and information. The truth of the matter is that we have had access to similar information around the globe on a 24-hour basis for some decades now. Recall the Vietnam War and how reports of the day’s battles were brought into our dining rooms as American families watched the carnage and ate their evening meals together. No, it’s not the technology that has changed the way we are spoon fed bits and pieces of the news. I think that it is the approach that has been adopted by the media that has helped to develop our appetite for sound bites.

Perhaps the idea for brief news items came out of a “scientific”
survey of the TV viewing public, and what has happenend is a caving in
to the lowest common denominator, i.e., the viewer or listener with the
shortest attention span or with little interest in the world at large (or at least the world outside of his or her nation’s borders). These are the same people who can sit in front of the “boob tube” for hours,
if not days, on end, mesmerized by sporting events. But try to get them
to sit for more than a minute to listen to national or international news, and their interest plummets.

Books, too, seem to be following the lead. Sections in newer reference books are no longer written at varying lengths, no longer given sufficient length to fully explain a process or an event. Today there is a tendency to put everything the publisher wants to say on two facing pages per topic, maybe 4 pages total for a complex topic. So, now all one needs per topic is two or four pages of text.

As a columnist for a local paper that is part of a national syndicate, I had been writing columns on global environmental issues for the past 6 years. About a third of them had some link to the community in which I live. But, the newest editor of the paper felt that all the columns must have a tie-in to a local story. I rejected this parochial idea as just another step in the process of Dumbing Down America.

It is not just the fault of the media. It is our fault as well. We don’t want to take the time to keep abreast of important issues. It is a bit like the chicken and egg problem: which came first? Is the media dumbing us down, or are we asking the media to provide us with the barest minimum of infomation so that we can feel informed even if we are not? Sure, sound bites are useful for chitchat at parties, but are they useful for helping us to understand the complexities and nuances of issues that confront us, be they social, cultural, political, environmental, or scientific?

Shouldn’t we be demanding more depth of information on important issues and less information or none at all on less important ones (case in point: do we really care if Brooke Shields and Andrei Agassi have two or three kids after her sitcom career takes off? Do we really need to know about Michael Jackson’s baby?).

Maybe Generation X wants sound bites to live by. From my perspective
(someone in his upper 50s) I think we are cheating future generations out of knowledge that may be required by them to cope in an ever-changing world. If we want to become a sound-bite country, then let’s do so knowingly and not do it by accident. There’s still time.

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