“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
To say we live in a fast paced world is an understatement. The Pony Express shut down only 150 years ago and the technology that erases time and space in communication and media is breathtaking. The tapping telegraph wire has given way to instant messaging and social networks crammed with news about celebrities, i phones, hit TV shows, and blockbusters making up the ubiquitous small talk of Diaspora communities from Nairobi to New Hampshire. The world has become a marketplace and we, the inhabitants, have all become potential buyers. The large globe is now small enough to be accessed in a moment and consumed for a lifetime. Because of these rapid changes I’ve been given the unflattering title of “consumer” whether I like it or not and I’ve often wondered how I function in this cause and effect world of consumption. How self aware am I of who I am and what I view or listen to? Do I passively change with the world?
It always seemed naïve to say that chronic consumption of media doesn’t have repercussions like habitual eating, drinking, or smoking. It reacts in other areas besides the core organs but I have seen grown men punch each other in the face after watching Green Street Hooligans, and I’ve witnessed shy people talk to random strangers because the song “Small Town Girl” by Journey makes them feel ‘spontaneous’ and ‘romantic.’ If these emotions come from one movie or one song then how do they affect us in a world of constant access to movies and music?
Movies and TV shows, in some sense, are combinations of sounds and images tailor made to stir up a feeling or state of mind. For instance if we want to feel academic we might watch Dead Poets Society. That movie inspires academic and bohemian feelings—reading Thoreau in the woods or standing on desks while ripping pages out of textbook. These are potent images that make up one of many stories; boxed emotions and feelings at our disposal. When I sit in front of the red Netflix screen it’s a game of ‘pick a story’ as I scan movies like the 89-cent menu at Taco Bell. For better or worse our story telling has become as cheap and easy as a crunch wrap. And if it doesn’t satisfy us we turn to something else—something new.
The age of the iPod has revolutionized the world of music. Henry Ford crowded Times Square with Model Ts and Steve Jobs covered the world with white headphones. People listen to music while they run, work, and drive and look for particular songs to fit their context, giving us the ability to make soundtracks for our lives. We relate to soundtracks and characters in stories because both have been inspired by real life, but the age of entertainment technology has made the made the influence a two way road. Film and soundtracks invite our worldviews to be compartmentalized into movie-like scenes. Since the advent of eighties workout montages we can tend to think of long stretches of time cut it into images and sped up to music. Being someone who watches a lot of movies I often find my first reaction is to feeling cheated when real life is uninterested in fulfilling my expectations quickly. I have to remind myself that I don’t walk on a movie reel like a treadmill, I walk the earth and it turns much slower.
I also have to be careful to differentiate between the image and truth. I might be inspired when I watch a movie like Ghandi to fight for freedom through extreme actions (like a hunger strike protest), but in the film’s rhetoric I can get lost in presenting the show of a hunger strike instead of the conviction and deliberation it takes to lead one. My inspiration from a good character is actually good and might lead me to action, but to copy their style and creed can be as empty as buying a certain brand of t-shirt—it benefits my image and deprives my character.
We discredit and underestimate our media’s potential for good or bad if we consume passively. In the fast world of youth worship the consumer feels old and slow. The preacher in Ecclesiastes says “All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.” Consumers can easily be caught in a never ending cycle of cause and effect—chasing after the wind. Dry leaves and tumbleweeds are the fastest movers in the world of reaction, but both are dead.
It’s a lot easier in some respects to act like a dead man, but I have this chronic urge to want to be alive. When I think of myself as a food consumer I think of filling my stomach, but when I think of a food connoisseur I don’t often picture someone in the drive through line or palming their mouths with theatre popcorn—not to say that they never do, it’s just hard to picture. A connoisseur loves the aesthetic power of food just as a nutritionist is aware of its potential for harm or good. Both will eat deliberately because of knowledge and respect acquired for something as trifling as salad or steak, and if tri tip and cucumbers can inspire disciplined appreciation, then how much more songs and stories? This kind of awareness requires focus and deliberation. If our overload of film and music access turns to searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track then we might find consuming the world doesn’t make as much sense as being fascinated by it.