Thursday, December 14, 2006

National Census: Less Reading, Less Meaning, More Media

[The following material is from The New York Times review of the national census figures. My comments follow the Times report.]

Adolescents and adults now spend, on average, more than 64 days a year watching television, 41 days listening to the radio and a little over a week using the Internet. Among adults, 97 million Internet users sought news online last year, 92 million bought a product, 91 million made a travel reservation, 16 million used a social or professional networking site and 13 million created a blog.

The demand for information and entertainment seems almost insatiable,” said James P. Rutherfurd, executive vice president of Veronis Suhler Stevenson, the media investment firm whose research the Census Bureau cited.

Mr. Rutherfurd said time spent with such media increased to 3,543 hours last year from 3,340 hours in 2000, and is projected to rise to 3,620 hours in 2010. The time spent within each category varied, with less on broadcast television (down to 679 hours in 2005 from 793 hours in 2000) and on reading in general, and more using the Internet (up to 183 hours from 104 hours) and on cable and satellite television.

How does all that listening and watching influence the amount of time Americans spend alone? The census does not measure that, but since 2000 the number of hobby and athletic nonprofit associations has risen while the number of labor unions, fraternities and fan clubs has declined.

“The large master trend here is that over the last hundred years, technology has privatized our leisure time,” said Robert D. Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard and author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

“The distinctive effect of technology has been to enable us to get entertainment and information while remaining entirely alone,” Mr. Putnam said. “That is from many points of view very efficient. I also think it’s fundamentally bad because the lack of social contact, the social isolation means that we don’t share information and values and outlook that we should.”


More than half of American households owned stocks and mutual funds in 2005. The 91 million individuals in those households had a median age of 51 and a median household income of $65,000.

That might help explain a shift in what college freshmen described as their primary personal objectives. In 1970, 79 percent said their goal was developing a meaningful philosophy of life. By 2005, 75 percent said their primary objective was to be financially very well off.


Please notice the coorelation between the decline in reading, the increase in media consumption, and the freshman's lack of concern to find a "meaningful philosophy of life." (Although I don't have any statistics on this, I wager that older people as well as less interested in this pursuit or have trivialized it.) I don't think the relationship is incidental. It reflects our descent into a "sensate culture," as Pitrim Sorokin put it years ago. (Harold O.J. Brown also wrote a book called The Sensate Culture.) The realm of ideas, philosophy, and objective meaning is eclipsed as people immerse themselves in the realm of subjective, sensory immediacy. For us, that means the blanishments of restless electronic images: TV, video games, movies, and more. As Professor Putman points out, since most of these activities are solitary, this leads to social isolation. This is not the isolation of the contemplative, who prizes silence and solitude as a realm for the illumination of higher things. No, it is the the sonic and visual isolation of the over-stimulated, the wired, the restless, the chronically ADD and proud-of-it multi-taskers.

But even music DVDs need not be isolating. Recently, I spent a fulfilling evening having dinner and watching a music video with a long-time friend. I had watched the video, Pat Metheny Group's "The Way Up," by myself, and was very impressed. However, watching it on an excellent system with a bona fide musician who possesses superb musical taste added a richness to it not otherwise possible--not to mention the enjoyment received through judicious intake of a liquid substance celebrated in Psalm 104:15.

The trends the census reports are ominous. Millions spend the equivalent of 64 days of the year rotting their minds and souls watching television. Books--and the Good Book--are pushed aside. We are creating a false digital heaven that will one Day be revealed as hell. Selah.


Ray said...

Re: Psalm 104:15 - You drank oil? Yuck!

Thanks for your insight into this article, Dr. G. I read it the other day and knew you would have something...constructive to say.

Paul D. Adams said...

The Metheny DVD was truly extrodinary! Combined with the [moderate use of] a "liquid substance" "excellent system," shared with a bona fide philosopher-friend-former-grad-school-mentor, we generated a "sensate culture" of our own.

Long-time friend

Yossman said...

I get regular emails from an online job marketing agency. Recently they have started emphasizing the fact that higher education makes for higher income. It's the mantra that seems to work best in the job market.

In addition to Psalm 104:15 I can really recommend Belgian monastry beer. Brewed for contemplation by those who practised it as a vocation.