THE PARALYSIS OF THE AMERICAN MIND – Part Two

BLOG #17, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE PARALYSIS OF THE AMERICAN MIND
Part Two
April 24, 2013

Each day that passes, for untold millions of people, the electronic world is increasingly edging out the real world. Initially, pundits prophesied that the Brave New World of the Internet would result in bringing us closer and closer to each other. Instead, the reverse is proving true: Just look at text-messaging: it has become a substitute for real-life interaction. Look at the number of people who text-message each other in the same room—they look at the screen rather than at the real-life face. Lately, researchers are noting another result: people are becoming ever more isolated from each other; in fact, we’re losing the ability to read each other’s body language.

Another study I read just during the last week had to do with what’s happening to us sexually. Because the electronic world continues to dehumanize us, increasingly sexuality is becoming merely another sport, aerobics if you please, in which we gain momentary highs without deepening the relationship with the person who made that high possible. Consequently, rather than sex deepening the relationship between two people, increasing the love and commitment they have for each other, the reverse is proving true: throw-away relationships are becoming the norm, and not incidentally, accelerating our current epidemic of suicides.

But neither should we lose sight of the wonderful benefits of the Internet, the many ways in which it has changed our lives for the better. For instance, earlier in my writing career, when we completed a manuscript, we’d photocopy it, then take it to the Post Office and mail it certified, then wait and wait for a response on the other end. Today, a click of the mouse sends it to the recipient wherever in the world that person may be; another click of the mouse and the person on the other end acknowledges its receipt; thirty minutes later, another click of the mouse and we know what that person thinks of the manuscript after a cursory reading of it. In that respect it is indeed a Brave New World on the positive side. So I am not debunking or running down the marvelous technology that makes all this possible, but rather I am addressing some of the darker side-effects we should thoughtfully study.

There was a thirty-year-fuse that eventually ignited into my book, Remote Controlled (Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1993). In it I tackled the issue of what we were becoming as the result of our fascination with television. One finding is most apropos to this blog series: If you are listening to a live drama or radio theater, or reading a book or magazine, no two people will create the same mental imagery, for each of us creates such imagery connotatively, in association with everything else we’ve experienced in life, and building on the creative imagery created earlier by our brains, we create a new one from each such exposure. Each book we read, for instance, can be a treasure chest for hundreds of images instantly transmitted into our brain’s archives.
But now, let’s contrast that with imagery that is beamed at us electronically–be it a movie, a television program, or a video. Whether one person sees it or a billion, the image is the same: since it is pre-fab, created by someone other than the receiver of the electronic image, it is one and the same. Result: it is blasted straight into the receiver’s inner archives, bypassing the receiver’s mind, heart, and soul, for they had nothing to do with its creation. The consequences, over time, we’ve all seen. The non-readers are crippled by an inability to create well for most everything in their inner memory archives is second-hand, created by someone else!

When I have two Freshman Comp students in a class, and ask them to take out a piece of paper and get ready to write, the reader can hardly wait to begin (having so many stylistic templates to draw from), whereas the non-reader just stares glassy-eyed at that sheet of paper, unable to even begin. Having only unstructured disjointed electronic imagery to draw from, that student is, more often than not, incapable of either writing or speaking in coherent well-structured sentences and paragraphs. Hence our current epidemic of cheating in America, for non-readers, having little that is original in their heads, when faced with writing an essay, term paper, or research project, are, tragically, unable to write without cheating.

In fact CEOs have noticed that it goes on from there: they’ve discovered that if they take two applicants for a position (one a reader and the other a non-reader), and ask them to follow a five-step process to a solution to a problem (A, B, C, D, and E), deliberately leaving out a step, the reader comes to the abyss, is puzzled but not defeated by it, and almost immediately, like a spider, sends synapses out in all directions, and is thus able to bridge to the other side, continue, and arrive at a conclusion. The non-reader, having never developed that part of the brain scholars call “the library,” in which the brain has learned to talk to itself, is literally incapable of ever bridging to the other side.

So while a given non-reading person may develop marvelous skill in utilizing technology and become a whiz at creating data, that individual may be crippled by an inability to fully interpret and articulate the significance of that data.

From all that I have seen, from all that I have read, America has become a society of non-readers. And that reality alone contributes mightily to what I am calling the paralysis of the American mind.

We will conclude this tripartite series next Wednesday.

THE PARALYSIS OF THE AMERICAN MIND – PART ONE

BLOG #16, SERIES 4

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

THE PARALYSIS OF THE AMERICAN MIND

Part One

April 17, 2013

I pray a lot about my blogs – that God will help me choose each one – then I wait. Sometimes His answer is soft and under-stated; sometimes He permits me to choose from several options; and sometimes the answer is about as subtle as the smash of a sledgehammer – that’s the way it has been this week. The subject so significant it will take me three blogs to address it.

The catalyst? Two days ago, early one snowy morning, after walking through the almost heartbreakingly beautiful April snow – never a given in drought-plagued Colorado –, I thought once again about the fragility of our lives, and wondered how many more such April snowfalls the good Lord would grant me.

Back at the house, a fire was crackling merrily in our moss rock fireplace. When we were searching for a home in the Rockies a little over 16 years ago, a must was a wood-burning fireplace. When we found this place, one glimpse of this particular fireplace, and we knew we were home.

Back in the house with two newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The Denver Post, I settled down to catch up on news of the world. Usually, I stall out more often with WSJ, but not this morning, for there in Section C of the Post was the blog catalyst for the next several weeks. Here is how Matt Miller’s jolting headline read:

PLUGGED IN
FACEBOOK DOESN’T WANT TO BE A TOOL,
IT WANTS TO BE YOUR SOCIAL LIFE

It begins with, “Facebook is in the business of social lives. The friends you have, the execs you stalk, the restaurants you like, and the brands you talk about are at the core of what they do.”

Miller points out that Facebook executives have been increasingly convicted that they were losing the battle for control of our minds to other media brands and forms. So their brain trust came up with something they call “Facebook Home,” but is really far closer to “Facebook Phone,” for it inserts Facebook into the center of the Android phone world.

Initially, Miller perceived the program as a good and needed thing, but the more he’s studied it, the more apprehensive he has become:

When Facebook becomes the hub of our mobile social lives as the operating core of our phone, it is no longer just a tool we use to streamline our social lives – Facebook can now BE your social life.

Miller then quotes from University of Colorado Michelle Jackson (associate professor of communication):

You get hundreds of people that you’re supposedly following. And Facebook takes care of all the decisions . . . of what to read about who, and when.

Imagine the number of times the average person looks at his/her phone every day. Now, with Home, this person is automatically being thrust into the social world via Facebook with each glance.

Jackson notes that deciding moment-by-moment whether to socialize or not will no longer even be an option, for if your phone is turned on, you’re already there:

From the moment you turn it on, you see a steady stream of who’s in a bad mood, who’s happy, who’s posted pictures from a party or a meal. Instant access to political rants or anything else people broadcast on social media.

* * * * *

I do not regard Facebook’s Home program as insidious in itself, but rather symptomatic of an even broader issue: What’s happening to us as a society? There’s an old sociological term for it – other-directed. We have just two options in life: we are either other-directed or we are inner-directed. To be inner-directed is to have an inner core of beliefs that enables you, to a certain extent, to be master of your own destiny. By extension: whether you succeed or fail at what you do and accomplish on a day-to-day basis, is in your hands rather than in the hands of others. On the other hand, if you lack inner-directedness, and are consequently other-directed, you are no more in control of your multitudinous life-choices than would be true of the captain of an ocean cruiseship that has lost its rudder. In wartime vernacular, you are a “sitting duck” for forces beyond your control.

We ought to be terrified by this accelerating shift from being an inner-directed nation to being an other-directed one.

The result is that more and more of us are choosing to live in a vicarious world rather than in the real one; choosing pleasure as our lode-star rather than real-life tough choices,. I’m reminded of my personal immersion into utopian and dystopian literature preparatory to writing my master’s thesis at Sacramento State University. During that time period I studied the two most famous dystopias: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell’s nightmarish world of the future was patterned after tyrants such as Stalin who murdered some 40,000,000 of his people in order to remain in power. Huxley’s view of the future was much more benign: ruling by control of the mind rather than body. In retrospect, as I look back over the years separating me from 2013 and the 1968 thesis (45 years), I feel that if Huxley were alive today, he’d have written a sequel to his own sequel. Twenty years after writing Brave New World, he wrote Brave New World Revisited. In it he voiced his deep concern for the societal shift that had already taken place: in only twenty years, already Brave New World was becoming reality rather than fiction. Originally, he’d assumed it would take a century to get there!

In Brave New World (a flashback to Shakespeare’s The Tempest), Huxley created a world driven by the pleasure-principle. Just as was true in the last years of the Roman Empire, unscrupulous individuals are able to assume control of millions of people by providing ever more pleasure-related activities so that the masses would lose interest in the realities of government and citizenship.

So, to conclude this first segment of “The Paralysis of the American Mind,” and set the stage for Part 2, let’s recap by posing some questions worth pondering:

• Just how much control over my life am I willing to surrender to someone else (be it an individual or corporation)?

• How much intrusion into my own achievement/career/family, etc. trajectories am I willing to permit?

• What effect on my personal time-management will these near constant electronic intrusions have?

• Just what am I today: inner-directed or other-directed?

• Recognizing that Facebook’s Home is but one piece of a vast electronic mosaic, is it perhaps time for me to back off a bit and take stock of how I am personally relating to the realities of my own Brave New World?