A few years back, I had three patients over 80-years old in a row coming to see me in my office. I noted the fact ahead of time and decided to get their pooled perspective on life. How would people who had lived since the Great Depression view life today and the changes that have happened since they were young? So I asked them the following:
- With all of the changes - cures for diseases, better standard of living, better communications, etc. - do you think people are happier now or were they happier when you were younger?
- What do you think the biggest cause of this is?
You would expect initially that our technological advances and healthcare breakthroughs have improved the quality of life and therefore made people happier. But as I suspected, all three said without hesitation that they felt that people were much happier in the past than they are today.
What I found most interesting, however, was the answer they gave to the second question. They did not mention moral standards dropping, consumerism, the disintegrating family, or other common cries in our society (or goats and llamas, for that matter); they instead unanimously felt that it was a lack of community that was the biggest factor in a happier life in the past. "You talked to your neighbors and spent time with them" one of them told me. "Now nobody knows anyone."
Since then I have thought about this fact and how it applies to my life. I don't know my neighbors very well - there are times they seem more busybodies than friends. Why is it that we are so much more isolated than we were in the past? What has been the sociological factor that has made us so much more isolated? The answer seems obvious to me: television.
Television has turned our culture from one centered on social interactions to one of personal entertainment. Instead of sitting on their porch or working in their yard, people sit in front of the television for incredible amounts of time each day. The effects are felt even within families, with people going their own ways to watch their own shows every night instead of talking to their parents, children, or siblings. While relationships take effort and initiative, television requires nothing out of its viewer. The inherent laziness of the human heart makes this opium too hard to resist.
The incredible effects that this medium had were widespread, affecting everything from the political process to people's waistlines. The effect on politics was profound. A small set of news organizations totally controlled what we saw, heard, and ultimately felt about things. News organizations, part of for-profit networks, became increasingly oriented toward sensationalism so as to garnish the highest number of viewers. This resulted in a degradation of the political debate away from the issues and toward the sound bite that would capture the fancy of the news organizations.
You may note that I am speaking in past tense. In truth, I am not sure that things are not changing again in a positive way. The Internet and other new communication tools have changed the uni-directional passive entertainment back to more a more socially interactive culture. I am not saying that the effects of television are still extremely significant, but I do see a shift away from the isolation of the late 20th century toward more interactive media. Kids are text messaging their friends constantly and adults are chatting more online; and who can forget about bloggers?
What I am doing at this very moment is far more interactive than what I did with my time a few years ago. I am sharing my thoughts and opinions openly and engaging in debate about various subjects. I doing this, I am interacting socially with people I would never have met any other way. Consider:
- I am now good friends with an atheist in Texas
- I have fun conversations with people in the UK, Australia, and India
- I have actually been interviewed on my thoughts about Avandia by a national magazine
- I regularly interact with a Laundress in Wisconsin, a Moof in Maine, an Angel, and many other people who I would never have met had I not been blogging.
- I am regularly writing in various styles, actively seeking to learn and improve on my writing skills (I still have a long way to go)
Consider too the effect this has had on the political process, with a blogger having a huge effect on the last presidential election. Hopefully this will pull the power away from the sound-bites and toward real issues. While we are still far from the open debate on real issues that we need (and I don't hold a lot of faith that it will ever go too far in that direction), we now have a forum by which real debate can happen. News organizations no longer have a strangle-hold on what we see and hear, nor do we only have the option of whatever local paper and/or newscasts we get for our information.
While there are still many reasons to be a pessimist about things, I am very happy for my involvement on the Internet. I have been made much richer by the friends I have gained and the perspectives I would have otherwise missed had I not been here. I have a more diverse group of people now that I call friends than I ever have had. I would say that is cause for hope.
Gotta go now. I think there are re-runs of Gilligan's Island on that I don't want to miss....