Monday Morning, July 21, 2008
It seems to me that we’ve crossed over some mysterious boundary into a new world of change. I’m no prophet. I certainly do not qualify to be called any sort of futurist. Or a seer. But the winds of change are blowing and leave me to wonder if the philosopher poet/sage of my youth, Bob Dylan, may have been right about where the answer lies.
When I sat down for lunch with a good friend, a high school English teacher, I caught him reading a little book with a provocative title. Clint was half way through Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (1985). The book is more than twenty years old now, but is enjoying a sort of resurrection these days, particularly among English teachers who have the unenviable task of convincing adolescents to put aside their iPods and cell phones and portable gaming handsets and text-messaging devices just long enough to sit in a quiet corner and read. I was intrigued by the thesis of Postman’s book. And Clint is one of those bright guys who can always be counted on for energetic, informative, stimulating conversation. I got my hands on a copy.
Postman’s warning was issued in the Reagan era. This would be pre-world-wide-web; pre-chat-rooms and pre-virtual-communities and pre-EBay and pre-Web-2.0 and the new reliance on all things digital. Postman’s primary concern was not the ever-present PC. (The bulky desktops and “luggables” primarily served as whiz-bang typewriters and number crunchers back then). It was, rather, the TV. The domination of the flickering television and the people who programmed them were Postman’s targets. He complained that they were, by necessity, turning everything into entertainment – especially the producers of “news.” To gain ratings that would justify the high cost of advertising, programming became a mind numbing succession of gotcha sound-bites and look-at-me eye-candy. Rapid fire transitions and attention-grabbing setups made turning the darn thing off a near impossibility.
Postman’s analysis is heady stuff. He’s a philosopher at heart, and makes the strong case that the age-old habit of reading forms the foundation of an intelligence that is a fundamental pre-requisite to meaningful discourse in the public square. He bemoans the slow but sure demise of the discipline and joy of reading and writing in the electronic age. There is something irreplaceable in the process of constructing sentences and paragraphs, carefully edited and thoughtfully crafted in the forming of ideas and collaborating on projects and making a persuasive case. His argument is dead on and perhaps more relevant today than when he wrote it.
He wrote just after the passing of a watershed year for readers – 1984. It’s the year George Orwell’s chilling predictions were to come to pass. But didn’t. In his novel by that title (published in 1949), he warned of a stark world controlled by a world-wide totalitarian regime that would monitor everything – even our thoughts. Big Brother would be an ever-present guardian, Orwell warned, if the social engineers were allowed to take control. But in 1985, Postman announced that 1984 passed and Orwell’s prophecy did not come to fruition. (Maybe Orwell’s warning worked.) But, as Postman makes clear, Huxley’s had. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) was the prophetic winner. Where Orwell imagined a world threatened from the outside, Huxley identified the threat from the inside, says Postman. It’s not an oppressive, totalitarian regime suffocating the human spirit. It’s our addiction to comfort and pleasure that’s killing us.
So Clint is bucking the trend. It’s no easy task. With a quick wit and a sense of humor and a love for his students, he opens up a world of learning that would otherwise be out of reach for this generation of students equipped with gadgets that distract and shorten attention span. He’s teaching them to turn off the power switch, and open a book. It’s a gift that will keep on giving for a life time.
This culture of accelerating change is taking us to a Brave New World. There are many unknowns. The answer, well, I guess it’s blowin’ in the wind.
Old ways of assessing, analyzing, planning, well, they don’t work anymore. Even George Barna has given up on the idea that God can be reduced to a statistical model. (See Unplugged.)
Where’s it all going? I wish I knew. One thing I know for sure. I’m taking my cue from Postman. And my friend Clint.
On this Monday morning, as a leader, I need to make time to turn off the digital machines, find a quiet corner, and get lost in a good book.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008