Fish are jumpin’ and the cot­ton is high

But dig­i­tal­ized lazy days of sum­mer are just not what they used to be

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Suzanne Fields Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Washington Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

“Sum­mer­time, when the livin’ is easy.” Ge­orge Gersh­win’s haunt­ing melody and DuBose Hey­ward’s ten­der lyrics once floated over the mood of sum­mer, coax­ing us all to rev­erie. But that was when va­ca­tion­ers lay on the beach un­der a lazy old sun, con­cen­trat­ing on im­por­tant things, like grains of sand seep­ing through their toes, and watch­ing the cur­rents of salty waves ebb and flow be­fore rip­pling back to the vasty deep.

We lux­u­ri­ated in those sum­mers past, leav­ing the ca­coph­ony of the city and the ur­gen­cies of work and school be­hind.

But such ide­al­is­tic escapes, even if only par­tially ac­cu­rate, are gone with the smart phone. I’ve been watch­ing peo­ple at play, the view from a beach blan­ket on­the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In­stead of toss­ing a beach ball or jump­ing the waves, the kids are mes­mer­ized by dig­i­tal toys, the grown-ups check their texts and email for the tenth time of the day. Ev­ery­body is tak­ing self­ies.

The selfie, that per­sonal por­trait clicked from a dozen an­gles, is dis­patched thou­sands of miles in an in­stant, cap­tur­ing the heat of a mo­ment, whether of per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance or not. Few of us put script on pa­per or cards to go to friends and loved ones. A shoe­box of the col­lected let­ters I ex­changed with my daugh­ter at camp and col­lege, which we laugh and rem­i­nisce over to­day, are relics of an an­ti­quated means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as dead as the tele­gram or a con­ver­sa­tion via a lan­d­line.

In the dig­i­tal world where most of us live, de­tailed thoughts are re­duced to acronyms on texts, “lol” (laugh out loud ) or “smh” (shake my head). It’s not all bad, of course, and in­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion has its re­wards, but some of the re­liance on fast mes­sag­ing keeps at bay the slower, deeper in­sights and per­cep­tions. Biog­ra­phers com­plain that the reser­voir of the writ­ten word is swiftly dry­ing up on the shores of the elec­tronic world, where Snapchats evap­o­rate in 20 sec­onds and tweets dis­ap­pear with the ease of a fin­ger slid­ing up and down on a tiny screen.

The in­tel­lec­tual process for in­sight and ob­ser­va­tion may be chang­ing, too. We in­creas­ingly rely on the in­stant dig­i­tal ex­change to ex­cite the senses, whether per­sonal or po­lit­i­cal. (Let’s keep Don­ald Trump out of this for the mo­ment.)

Just 20 years ago, Neal Gabler wrote a book called “Life the Movie: How En­ter­tain­ment Con­quered Re­al­ity.” His point was that we have be­come both en­ter­tainer and au­di­ence in life’s dra­mas as the ner­vous sys­tem re­quires the ex­cite­ment of dif­fer­ent kinds of per­for­mances played for the self and oth­ers. Writ­ten be­fore the ubiq­uity of the In­ter­net, Gabler’s points of ref­er­ence were movies and tele­vi­sion, demon­strat­ing how the me­dia be­gan to re­duce dis­tinc­tions sep­a­rat­ing art, en­ter­tain­ment and news. In­stead of art im­i­tat­ing life, life be­gan to im­i­tate art, even pop art. Ob­jects of ev­ery­day life, in­clud­ing peo­ple who were merely fa­mous for be­ing fa­mous, were mag­ni­fied to an im­por­tance they were never meant to have.

Even be­fore the In­ter­net, where on­line am­a­teurs be­come self-made pun­dits and at­tract an au­di­ence with noth­ing par­tic­u­lar to say, show-biz tech­niques be­came the means and mea­sure­ment for the pre­sen­ta­tion of pro­fes­sional news of pol­i­tics, sat­is­fy­ing an au­di­ence and rais­ing rat­ings.

It was a short step from there to re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, which makes real life even larger (and cheaper) as a fo­cus of amuse­ment. Fic­tional nar­ra­tives were de­signed to in­spire pity and fear, with the un­der­stand­ing that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, like home videos, is life it­self. Watch­ing some­one slip on a ba­nana peel, or be­ing told that “you’re fired!” ac­tu­ally de­liv­ers real pain. Just not ours. It’s pain that doesn’t touch us. We can laugh or be sur­prised with­out feel­ing em­pa­thy. Pity and fear are re­placed by spec­ta­cle for the sake of en­ter­tain­ment.

So­cial crit­ics point out how dis­trac­tion has be­come more im­por­tant than in­sight. Colum­nists who fol­low read­ers’ com­ments at the and of their work on­line are sur­prised by how read­ers are quickly dis­tracted from the words at hand, and be­gin ar­gu­ing with and in­sult­ing each other, rais­ing the drama.

Neil Post­man, the me­dia critic whose 1985 book “Amus­ing Our­selves to Death,” fore­saw dan­ger when “facts push other facts into and out of con­scious­ness at speeds that nei­ther per­mit or re­quire eval­u­a­tion.” He feared Al­dous Hux­ley’s fu­ture de­scribed in “Brave New World,” where peo­ple come “to adore the tech­nolo­gies that undo their ca­pac­i­ties to think.”

It’s easy to at­tack Don­ald Trump’s per­sona as cre­ated in re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, with­out con­sid­er­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of those who cre­ate the per­sonas, se­lect­ing and sell­ing dis­trac­tion in­stead of se­ri­ous news. Every rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nol­ogy changes the en­vi­ron­ment with hopes that it will be har­nessed to make the world a bet­ter place. But that re­quires the long view, and we’re not there yet. It’s sum­mer­time, and the selfie is easy.

In the dig­i­tal world where most of us live, de­tailed thoughts are re­duced to acronyms on texts, “lol” (laugh out loud ) or “smh” (shake my head). It’s not all bad, of course, and in­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion has its re­wards, but some of the re­liance on fast mes­sag­ing keeps at bay the slower, deeper in­sights and per­cep­tions.

ILLUSTRATION BY HUNTER

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