Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Is This the “Better World” You Were Talking About?

Note from CM: A piece by Michael from 2009. Some of the cultural references are dated, but in the light of yesterday’s post and discussion, I thought it might be a good reminder that we here at IM have always seen the online life as something which needs constant monitoring because it incessantly challenges our calling to stay grounded in earthy and human reality.

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Is This the “Better World” You Were Talking About?

I grew up as television was growing up. I was born in 1956 and lived through the “Golden Age” of network television.

Television was part of my childhood and teenage years, but I had no reference point before television. Captain Kangaroo had always been there on the black and white television in the corner of our modest house.

My parents also lived through the “Golden Age” of television, but they had many years of life without television. They had grown up in rural America in the first quarter of the 20th century. Nether had education beyond high school. They grew up around the birth of radio, but television was something new to them.

I remember the many experiences we shared together around the television. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Kennedy and King assassinations. The Space program. Sporting events. Vietnam.

Every evening, the news with Walter Conkrite was the touchstone for my family’s view of the world. Yes, we had a local newspaper, but the immediacy and authority of television worked its way into our lives as it did the lives of so many Americans.

I never thought much about what television meant in our family until years later.

My dad had many anxieties, and one of his worst was the weather. He was extremely afraid of storms and he was devoted to the local television weather reports, the weather warnings on local radio and the information from his weather radio.

All of this before the Weather Channel and the endless hype about weather on every television channel.

When storms were coming, my dad was terrified, and the weather media helped him stay agitated and frightened for hours.

If my dad had lived to see the Doppler Warnings on today’s weather reports and the endless focus on weather disasters on 24 weather channels, I’m pretty sure it would have caused strokes, heart attack or a complete nervous breakdown.

But that’s how the world has changed. My dad didn’t know all kinds of things that I know, whether I want to- or need to- know them or not. And that seems to be a good thing.

I now have media telling me about every disaster, every danger, every warning, every piece of research, every scary statistic and every threat to world peace imaginable. If I don’t imbibe the media kool-aid myself, I’ll meet ten people every day at work who have information bombs to explode.

(Christians are so susceptible to media gullibility that it’s frightening. When I sit down to lunch in the cafeteria and hear the sentence, “I’ve been researching his on the internet,” I know I’m very likely about to hear 1) complete distortions and untruths 2) swallowed whole, digested and now spit back up with authority that would make any scientist blush.)

Last week, one of the major internet news outlets did a front page piece on 5 ways the world might end. Have a nice day America. Here’s your water cooler topic. For a whole day, we learned how a solar storm would take us back to the Neanderthal age. (If you believe in that sort of thing.)

I’m glad my dad didn’t have to deal with that amount of information. Or the story just below it: Oprah Gushes Over Winslet’s Breasts. Or the next day’s proclamation that the national debt won’t be paid off unless Jesus gives us the money.

My dad didn’t have Bill O’Reilley or Keith Obermann ranting five nights a week about all the terrible things the ordinary person can’t get by without knowing and getting furious over. C’mon, ordinary Americans. Are you pissd off yet? Well WHY NOT!!) Of course, the irony is that most people get by without knowing those things quite easily, but if you watch the media flamethrowers, western civilization and the existence of God are all up for grabs every night .

The farmers, illegal immigrants, working Joes and people in the nursing homes seem to get by just fine without knowing there is a desperate crisis every ten minutes.

The whole world is now drowning in undifferentiated information; everything is a panic and a crisis. Everything must be heard, everyone must pay attention. All the bad news that has happened and could happen must be paraded out for panic drills. All the unsolvable and uncontrollable situations must be heard about so we can demand the governments solve the problem.

Contemporary life must be lived with maximum information and maximum hype. It’s a crisis!! All the time!!! But first….ANOTHER CRISIS!!! AFTER THE COMMERCIALS!!!!!!

My mom and dad lived through the onset of the television era when we still had some sanity regarding the amount of information a person needed to live. The Cuban missile crisis really was more important than……I’m actually afraid to write anything ridiculous here because some of you will go nuts no matter what I mention.

The world is the world as its always been. But now we know about our carbon footprint. Now we know there’s a war on Christmas. Now we know what President Obama’s pastor once said in a sermon somewhere. Now we know what Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews consider to be worth writing a book about. Now we know how many pets were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and how big Paris Hilton’s lips are after the injections.

This isn’t a better world than the world of my parents. Oh sure, there’s better health information in there somewhere amidst all the hype, spin, ads and unadulterated crap. I guess we can all be grateful that we’re able to see the problems in the world we can each solve with a small monthly check, just before we learn if Tom Cruise really has Katie locked up in a tool shed on a Scientology ranch.

The information age is the ultimate double-edged sword. It’s brought to you by the same technology and information pipeline that brings you this blog. (A blog where, by the way, posts on egg nog are right next to the ones on starving children in the Sudan.)

My parents grew up in a world where a crisis was the ’37 flood taking away the farm or a world war taking away your brothers. They grew up in a world where television entertained and only occasionally sought to tell you what was important.

For my parents, what was important happened in your family, your neighborhood or maybe your county. Events in Washington or around there world were distant, and when they touched you, it was for reasons of obvious importance.

Were they ignorant? Were they under informed? Would their lives have been better if they could set in front of Fox News or CNN and watch the stock market’s every move?

I don’t think so.

They trusted a few sources of information. They believed that what they heard in church and Sunday School was what was really important. (And that came from their own pastor! Not a religious channel!!)

They believed in talking to their neighbors and family about what was going on in the community. Perhaps they needed to be overwhelmed by information, so they would know they couldn’t be happy without the stock market at 14,000 or a flat screen television. Perhaps they needed to be wired into the world-wide information superhighway, where “friends” are tiny pictures on facebook that may never say a word to you and “neighborhood” is the a collection of property belonging to other strangers you never talk to.

No…I think their world was better. And I say that with full knowledge that I never saw my parents read a book or listen to music that wasn’t on the radio. They were deprived of a lot, but their world wasn’t utter and complete chaos.

They didn’t believe the nonsense we believe. They weren’t enslaved to the consumer religion. They didn’t judge their children in comparison to anyone other than Wally and the Beaver. They didn’t judge their lives in comparison to the houses on the Better Homes Channel. They didn’t judge a meal by Rachel Ray or a church by Joel Osteen.

Media occupied its place in their world. They didn’t serve as pawns in the world of media.

And that’s what many of us have become. Pawns in a game where we hardly exist except as an audience for the information, consumer and entertainment establishment.

Shall we talk about pornography? The entertainment addicted personality? The damage to American health by the couch potato lifestyle? The philosophical relativism that lies at the heart of this construction of reality? The loss of our souls? The loss of simplicity and blissful ignorance?

For another day. For now, I’m just remembering the lives of my parents, and wondering if anyone has lived through the same sad revolution in the quality of our lives?

Would you consider anyone who lives submerged into today’s media culture to have much of a dependable idea of what it means to be a normal human being?

Yeah, me neither.

29 thoughts on “Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Is This the “Better World” You Were Talking About?

  1. How about a blind black lesbian in a wheelchair from the third world?

    (My old Dungeonmaster worked temp at the Census Bureau in either 1980 or 1990. One of his co-workers was “a blind black lesbian” who had a sense of humor about the whole situation: “Just call me ‘Quota’.”)


  2. My godmother trusted. She was a victim, not a party to something that will be confronted on ‘the day of the Lord’.

    And she may be one of the ones who rises up to confront them on that Day.


  3. well, look at the growth of Pat Robertson’s empire since the 60’s/70’s . . . . . and my goodness, if that many people could fall for that man’s spiel, then maybe it’s not so much ‘media gullibility’ as watching a huckster figure out what people want to hear and then giving it to them in large doses for which they will be grateful enough to ‘send money’

    just watching religious television shows us a cast of characters who would be at home right out of Southern gothic, so weird, so obviously phony, so undeniably insincere, and yet people ‘send money’

    my godmother did, may she rest in peace, because she looked only for the good in people and excused what she could . . . . she died crippled, because twenty years before her death, she would collect bottles and cans along the highway and sell them for a little case to send to her favorites . . . a car came along and hit her, and she didn’t walk after that . . . . we called the ‘700 Club’ to let them know that one of their long-time faithful donors was in hospital and might benefit from a visit, but we were told ‘we don’t do that sort of thing’ and the person hung up.

    So, she passed, that good and generous soul, and if I criticize those who follow these charlatans, I am unable to look myself in the mirror because I know people NEED to find hope where it can be found, even among the greedy, the hucksters, the politically-oriented manipulators . . . even there. My godmother trusted. She was a victim, not a party to something that will be confronted on ‘the day of the Lord’.

    I see these television ministers as leeches on the pain of the old people, yes. It breaks my heart.


  4. You and I are on the same plane with our life’s goals. I also am ambitious to attain a solid and sustainable averageness.


  5. “Christians are so susceptible to media gullibility that it’s frightening.” is the best line. It was true in 2009 and it’s even more true today.


  6. Yes, CM, that’s exactly right. It’s an important insight. The idea that what one gets on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media platform is not “curated” is just incorrect. There are always gatekeepers, and the new ones seem to be invisible, hence no accountability.


  7. I meant others not us and I blame the internet and Al Gore for my typo. Still striving for average .


  8. The internet has not led me to feel that I should kill myself but unfortunately I think it has led us to feel that they should kill me by benign neglect. I am joking as it is pretty obvious that I am certainly not trying to live up to any from of perfection, average is my goal and someday I will attain it

    I do think the internet in many ways is Shelly’s Frankenstein monster and I blame Al Gore.


  9. The old way small town ways were better for some people, and terrible for others. Like any Old Boy Network, it is great if you are an old boy yourself–not so great if you are on the outside looking in.

    In the case of small town America, the insiders were the people who were of the right ethnicity, socio-economic class, religion, and psychological profile. Check off all these boxes and enjoy your summer evenings sitting on the porch sipping lemonade and chatting with your neighbors as they make the rounds. But start leaving boxes unchecked and things go bad quickly. Reach a certain point, and this was not all that far, and no one will speak with you. Given that personal social interaction was pretty much all there was to do, this could be very bad indeed.

    Life on the farm was the same way. Yes, some people are natural farmers, taking strength from working the soil and living an idyllic life. For more people, it was grinding physical labor and sheer boredom. There is a reason so many boys went to the city as soon as they had the opportunity. Read between the lines even on the more sentimental fictional depictions and notice that the church social next month is a high point, looked forward to and remembered. I am a fan of church socials, but for one to the a social high point says more about what else is going on than it does about the event itself.

    Anyone nostalgic for that life should read William Faulkner.


  10. I value the internet for a number of things. I’ve never participated in anything but this blog. No other social media and zero interest. I am glad however that my mom, as a full-time caretaker for my dad, has access to Facebook and FaceTime to stay more connected to her kids and sisters. In general though I think, and I think there is ever growing documentation for this, the internet has more and more severed the warmth and touch of personal interaction. Suicide numbers among young girls, of all people, have been rising substantially. Boys as well. That’s disturbing and is symptomatic of isolation. This has been discussed before but it really struck home with the recent story of Alexandra Valora. It seemed to be about having to live up to a perfect and unattainable ideal that had gotten into her head but the weirdness of the blaring internet world is a factor that must be dicussed, particularly and especially in the general rise in numbers.


  11. > Now we enter the age of unfettered access

    We may have “unfettered” access to Opinions.

    Access to Data is, IMNSHO, effectively no less fettered than before. And much new data is safely locked away by corporations which can shrug off Congressional requests – – – so it is certainly not available to you or I.

    Editorial is not News.
    Opinions and Takes are not Data.
    Feelings are are only a narrow category of Information.


  12. Agree; today’s networks are utterly undemocratic. There are gatekeepers aplenty. And it is very difficult to even figure out who they are – if they are anyone. The Tech-Bro can always shrug and say “algorithm, hey man, its just math”


  13. “Is the world any better today in terms of the human connections we are able to make because we have all this information technology?”



  14. Or sit back clutching your Fire Insurance policies and Rapture boarding passes, looking up for Thy Redemption to Draweth Nigh. (“It’s Prophesied! It’s Prophesied!”)


  15. The whole world is now drowning in undifferentiated information; everything is a panic and a crisis. Everything must be heard, everyone must pay attention. All the bad news that has happened and could happen must be paraded out for panic drills. All the unsolvable and uncontrollable situations must be heard about so we can demand the governments solve the problem.

    “SAVE US, DONALD TRUMP!!!!!!!!!!”


  16. Stephen, that’s the way it appears, but I think I might be even more afraid of today’s gatekeepers, who like to let us all think that the information we’re getting is unfiltered. See my comment in yesterday’s discussion.

    And you’re absolutely right by the way. The amount of stuff unworthy of our attention is staggering.


  17. Rwithplague, thanks for sharing that. I would agree with you and am not surprised that it was performed in a Christian School, my view is that the Christian schools when it comes to culture and many things are like a late 1950’s /60’s environment and I do not mean that as a negative.

    There is a 1939 movie of Our Town, which actually was William Holdens first movie. Then there is a PBS version with Paul Newnan floating around.

    I am sure the version you saw with your Granddaughter was the best ever I think it is a timeless play or I use to think it was timeless. The themes , storyline running though it now do not seem realistic and applicable to our society in general. Perhaps your Granddaughter has seen the two movies I listed to prepare.

    I appreciate you sharing this as somehow it makes me feel better as even in my lower socio economic high school was the first time I saw the play and even then it touched my immature psyche.


  18. So passes the age of the gatekeepers, whose liabilities now become obvious. Who decided who got access? What criteria were they using to decide?.

    Now we enter the age of unfettered access. True unmitigated democracy, hurrah!. Every man a megaphone, set to the loudest volume setting, with no pause for breath lest you lose your place in line. Do we begin to see the liabilities of this way of doing things? (Perhaps chief among them is the sad realization that not everyone has anything interesting to say.)


  19. I agree with you and have made the point here that in many ways the world has never been better. But I think Michael’s point is a little more specific than simply “the world was better then.” It is more “Is the world any better today in terms of the human connections we are able to make because we have all this information technology?


  20. Correction, John Barry, Our Town does not lie in the dustbin of history. Just two years ago I watched my granddaughter in the role of Emily at her high school drama departmentl’s production of Wilder’s play. It was an enriching d and startling experience by virtue of having an inter-racial cast and her George was a young black man. But perhaps you are right. Since this occurred in a Christian school, maybe the dustbin of history moniker applies after all. I pray that it does not.


  21. Good Morning, J.B.

    ” those were the good ole days but you can’t go home again”

    I think some people are choosing to ‘go home again’ to a life that ‘makes sense’. For some, it might be simply basic choices like growing their own food in community gardens or on their own property; for some, it might be a retreat to that ‘home town’ they grew up in which doesn’t have an ‘average income’ anywhere near the place they live in now; for some it’s embracing a different point of view:
    “we need good schools, good food, good doctors, but pretty much everything else you can get from the Salvation Army or the Public Library” (materially this is TRUE, by the way). . . .

    some really get down to it with a purpose . . . . going ‘off grid’ which to most of us seems impossible, except that it turns out to make some people really happy . . . many settle for a place in the forests by lakes where their ancestors lived long ago and there they have some modern conveniences, a few deer, some bears, wood stoves, and a lot of peace and quiet, and time slows down and seasons become important to them bringing a ‘real’ impact on how they live now

    but hard to ‘go home again’ for the youngest of our children, who may never know what ‘home’ is in a country where people move from place to place, each place with its McD’s and its strip malls. Finding ‘home’ may be the hardest thing they ever try to do. And the most rewarding.

    Sure, ‘going home’ again to a place where we ‘belong’, that speaks to who we are within ourselves. We can choose to try at least. For some, it might mean a kind of salvation to slow time down enough for our bodies to feel their natural rhythm.


  22. Michael thinks their world was better. But I’m not convinced. After all, Michael’s father learned his weather anxiety in a world before weather reporting was pervasive, and was even less accurate than it is now. Small towns have always been hotbeds of anxiety-producing gossip, about things that were just as tawdry and trite as anything on the internet today. People have always found many things to be afraid of, things that their minds dwelt on in the long nights before electric lighting filled the darkness with artificial illumination. I think the human psychological condition has always been pretty much the same from age to age; humanity has always lived on the edge of a catastrophic precipice, and not knowing the exact shape that catastrophe might take did not lessen human awareness that it was there, and that it could manifest anytime. In a world where infant death was routine, where medical help was at a distance if available at all, where crops could be wiped out in an instant, where diseases could sweep through cities on a routine basis killing hundreds or even thousands, it was impossible not to be aware of the vulnerability of life, of one’s own life. I don’t believe their world was materially, socially, or psychologically better– just different.


  23. As someone who lived and loved living though the Golden Age of TV and the time period cited by M. Spencer my personal view of the difference between “then” and now is the lost of shared , national experiences that led to a society were that was a shared, national fabric that bonded the country. Everyone in America knew when Lucy had Little Ricky, everyone knew Hoss, Little Joe and Adam had different Mothers but same father, every knew what time it was for the Peanut Gallery, who was nothing but a Hound Dog and what watch kept on ticking after taking a licking. We all knew Allan Shepard and watched him go up and come down, high tech at the time.

    At that time the media of the era had a small enough footprint that people could integrate it into a normal, shared lifestyle with the communication of the media being a part of life not the center of life. As a kid I learned that a Paladin was a knight who liked to roam, thank you Richard Boone. Now with a flood of choices, a low bar of what is expected as entertainment and affluence that has numbed us to the reality of the need to make good personal choices, to give back to society and to interact with our community is a personal way.

    During this time period bowling leagues, social clubs, bingo, skating and many other social events such as going to church that produced individual social interaction that is missing now. Can you imagine writing these lyrics today and have people really take them to heart, “Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life”? Every grunt in Vietnam knew Bob Hope and the Playboy Bunnies and loved them for during USO tours even if we never saw them, again a shared experience that is now missing. While a commercial venture , that was much in this time period that was firm commitment .

    However though the work of our forefathers and their vision of a great nation we are now here. The dream of any society is always going to be a dream not a perfect reality but at least at this time period America tried .

    Knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is knowledge plus good judgement. If you do not know where you came from you probably do not know where you are going.

    The internet is a tool not a way of life and a substitute for a life. Yes in America there was once a place on commercial TV called Hooterville and it was a great place in what even then some called the vast wasteland. So our concerns are nothing new but certainly more pronounced. You can not put the genie back in the bottle every and who would want to put Barbara Eden back into the bottle? Ellie May Clampett, who did not know her or even Jethro. As Archie would say , those were the good ole days but you can’t go home again. Walt Disney TV mini series Davy Crockett, influenced America as much as Star Wars.

    Our Town by Thorton Wilder was a staple of high schools plays and now it lies in the dustbin of history, how is that for being dramatic. Times change and societies change , sometimes good, sometimes bad but change is never going to change, always going to happen.


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