One size doesn’t fit all mes­sages

The Washington Times Weekly - - COMMENTARY - Suzanne Fields

The “de­bates” be­tween the cur­rent crop of pres­i­den­tial wannabes bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to the stir­ring in­tel­lec­tual drama of Lin­coln and Douglas, but they ac­cu­rately re­flect our times. Short an­swers to triv­ial ques­tions for short at­ten­tion spans. There’s lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for elo­quence in a sound bite and it’s not likely that television au­di­ences would stay tuned if there were.

Pol­i­tics is a vic­tim of the elec­tronic cul­ture just as the voter who chooses his can­di­date based on it. When body lan­guage be­comes as im­por­tant as ver­bal ex­pres­sion, when in­tel­lect is re­duced to im­age, car­i­ca­ture in­evitably be­comes sub­stance. In less than half a cen­tury our cul­ture has un­der­gone a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion in how we process in­for­ma­tion. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it can only get worse.

The shift from reliance on care­fully wrought ideas, de­vel­oped through lan­guage, to learn­ing through im­agery is al­most to­tal. It starts in the crib. A new study re­ported in the Archives of Pe­di­atrics and Ado­les­cent Medicine finds that 40 per­cent of ba­bies un­der three months watch television reg­u­larly and 90 per- cent of chil­dren un­der the age of 2 do. Th­ese ba­bies have not yet been counted in the Nielsen rat­ings, but they have es­tab­lished their fa­vorite shows, of­ten the ones their par­ents watch.

In a ran­dom tele­phone sur­vey of 1,000 par­ents of chil­dren aged 2 months to 2 years in Wash­ing­ton state and Min­nesota, par­ents said they let their ba­bies watch television for “fun and ed­u­ca­tion.” Few of them ad­mit they use the tube as an elec­tronic babysit­ter.

In other stud­ies, doc­tors sug­gest that ba­bies who watch television ex­pe­ri­ence changes in their brain de­vel­op­ment at a time when they should be learn­ing to talk through as­so­ci­a­tion with the larger of their species. Tweens and teens who over­dose on television are more at risk for mak­ing poor habits of learn­ing, lead­ing to poor grades.

Adults who grew up in a tran­si­tional so­ci­ety with a strong reliance on the writ­ten word are more likely to use the elec­tronic me­dia se­lec­tively. But the per­cent­ages are de­clin­ing. We joke that we rely on our chil­dren to teach us how to pro­gram our com­put­ers and cell phones (who’s jok­ing?), and we don’t think much about what our kids have lost in the bar­gain.

The shift from the printed page to what we see on a flick­er­ing screen has wide rang­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tions for how we think. The printed news­pa­per is los­ing cir­cu­la­tion as its read­ers move to the In­ter­net and television, which means the gate­keep­ers of in­for­ma­tion are be­com­ing a dif­fer­ent breed, too. That’s why Ru­pert Mur­doch’s bid to buy the Wall Street Jour­nal from the nur­tur­ing Ban­croft fam­ily has struck hor­ror in the hearts of news­pa­per read­ers.

We’re los­ing the pa­tience de­vel­oped through re­flec­tion and per­cep­tion pro­vided by leisurely read­ing long and com­plex books, or even mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles and the op-ed pages. Camille Paglia, who writes about the cul­ture, likens the young to the astro­naut in Stan­ley Kubrick’s epic film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who spins help­lessly in space when a mas­ter com­puter goes amok. “The new gen­er­a­tion, raised on TV and the per­sonal com­puter but de­prived of a solid pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion, has be­come un­moored from the mother ship of cul­ture,” she writes in “The Magic of Images,” an anal­y­sis of the ways ed­u­ca­tion fails the young. The young are flooded with dis­con­nected images and frag­ments of ideas. They’re left with­out the abil­ity to make or some­times even un­der­stand co­her­ent ar­gu­ment.

Most of the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates are smart and well ed­u­cated, but they dumb down con­tent to fit the au­di­ence, tai­lor­ing their mes­sages to a shrink­ing frame­work. Young­sters for whom flick­er­ing images be­come more im­por­tant than an ex­panded vo­cab­u­lary built up through books, de­pend ever more on the ac­cel­er­a­tion of the de­liv­ery of dribs and drabs of in­for­ma­tion. “The com­puter, with its mul­ti­ply­ing fo­rums for spon­ta­neous free ex­pres­sion from e-mail to list­servs and blogs, has in­creased fa­cil­ity and flu­ency of lan­guage but de­graded sen­si­tiv­ity to the in­di­vid­ual work and re­duced re­spect for or­ga­nized ar­gu­ment, the process of de­duc­tive rea­son­ing,” says Ms. Paglia.

How we process in­for­ma­tion tears down the wall be­tween the pop­u­lar cul­ture of en­ter­tain­ment and the side of pol­i­tics that en­ables us to crit­i­cally as­sess char­ac­ter and mea­sure in­tel­lec­tual con­tent. When I watch from my tread­mill episodes of the television se­ries “24,” which de­pends on in­tense ac­tion draw­ing on images guided by fast-mov­ing tech­nol­ogy, I run twice as fast than when I watch the news. When it’s over I look for­ward to set­tling back into the printed word. The tiny tots raised in front of the television screen may never learn to do that.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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