Adelaide's Whooping Cough, the Annihilation of Space, and You

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph'but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. ~Thoreau, Walden

Why are you reading this?

It's most likely because you have a strong interest in news and politics and are likely to be better 'informed' than most. You like to and do seek out information of all kinds, so you read newspapers, you watch television, you surf the net.

I used to be like you. I could at times be insatiable in my desire for information. And the net, in particular, seemed a godsend ' imagine: instant access to newspapers and magazines from all over the world!

I'm not like that anymore. I've pulled away from it. Oh, I read ' in fact, I probably read much more now than I ever did. But now I read books almost exclusively. I cancelled my local paper and I don't surf the net nearly as much as I used to. Once, I had nearly 20 sites I read every day as I had my morning coffee. Now, I can count the sites I read on one hand, and even then I don't read them nearly as thoroughly as I used to. Why? Because if as individuals we truly want freedom, if we want to liberate ourselves from our peculiar American bondage, we need to clear our minds of this never-ending and misleading trail of trivia that we can't do anything about and focus instead on ideas more substantial and more useful ' on ideas we can act upon directly in our own individual lives.

Remember Sherman Adams? Quemoy and Matsu? John Profumo and Christine Keeler? The Cosa Nostra? Bobby Baker? Alexander Butterfield? Bert Lance? At one time, all these names held great meaning for those who 'kept up' with 'current events.' They provided the focus of much argument and debate in and out of the media. Then, we thought them vitally important. Now, if they mean anything at all to us, they are merely answers to questions in an unimportant trivia game.

Neil Postman talks in Amusing Ourselves to Death about how the nature of information and our relationship to it changed with the coming of the telegraph in the 1840s. Before then, he argues, most of the information people possessed related to some aspect of their lives. There was therefore a high correlation between information and action. Before telegraphy, he says, 'the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives' (p. 69). Certainly newspapers of the day carried stories of scandal and sensation, but 'it was at least local ' about places and people within their experience ' and it was always tied to the moment'. For the most part, the information they provided was not only local but largely functional ' tied to the problems and decisions readers had to address in order to manage their personal and community affairs' (p. 66).

The telegraph, however, destroyed locality. It annihilated space. No longer tied to the earth, information could now for the first time move faster than any physical messenger. As a result, says Postman, 'the local and the timeless'lost their central position in newspapers, eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed.' To increase profits, newspapers began to depend 'not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed.' He mentions that during the first week of 1848, a New York newspaper publisher claimed he had printed '79,000 words of telegraphic content ' of what relevance to his readers, he didn't say.' People began receiving 'news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular . . . . Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods ' much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide's whooping cough ' became the content of what people called 'the news of the day'' (Postman p. 66-67).

But people could do little if anything about this information. After all, it had nothing to do with them and took places hundreds if not thousands of miles away. How were they to aid poor Adelaide? Though they knew she had the whooping cough, there was nothing they could do about it. The information-action ratio had changed. Telegraphy, says Postman, 'made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote.' People were 'faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.' You may learn, for example, that children in Africa, thousands of miles away, are starving at this very moment. What now are you doing to do about it?

What can you do about it?

Telegraphy not only served 'to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence,' says Postman, it also 'made public discourse essentially incoherent' because 'telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography' (p. 69). Books, for example, take a fair time both to write and to read. Books are, relatively speaking, permanent. The telegraph, however, was totally different. Its value, says Postman, 'is undermined by applying the tests of permanence, continuity, or coherence . . . . Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation' (p. 70).

If that was true of life just before the War Between the States, how much more must it be true of life today? Television gives us 'news' all day every day on CNN, Fox, CNBC, MSNBC, Headline News. And the internet, of course, gives us almost instant access to information from all over the world whenever we want it. But, to be blunt: so what? What can you and I do about it? I see in the New York Times, for instance (and I'm just looking at the top four stories on the front page as I write this at 4:00 p.m. Eastern time on June 18, 2003), that the American military has captured a top aide to Saddam Hussein, that the bishop of Phoenix has resigned amid scandal, that 'flaws let terror suspects enter U.S.' and that the Supreme Court has ten more decisions this term. What do any of these things that have occurred hundreds or thousands of miles away from me have to do with my life? How will it change as a result of them? Mostly what this 'news' communicates ' and what I think it's primarily intended to communicate ' is that the State is the most important entity in the land, that it's good and works hard to protect you, and that the church, which pretends to be good and helpful, is really evil and corrupt ' after all, not only do priests have sex with children and hit people with cars before running away, their leaders cover it up!

By and large, we learn little if anything of use from the current daily media. As Postman writes, 'The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing' (p. 69). What we consider 'news' is merely gossip and is eminently disposable ' after all, tomorrow's Times will provide us with different details. The underlying themes, however, will remain the same because the major American media, just like the American 'public' school system, is designed not to impart knowledge but obedience. Their purpose is not to inform; their purpose is to indoctrinate.

And whenever we indulge in such reading or viewing, we're exposing ourselves to this indoctrination. We allow them to tell us what's important, what's worth discussing and what's not. We take what they have to say as our starting point, allowing them to set the agenda and define the terms of argument. But so much of it is exactly what Mick Jagger (of all people!) called it almost 40 years ago: 'useless information supposed to fire my imagination.'

Note ' I just looked again at the Times: in the last 30 minutes, two stories I mentioned have disappeared and been replaced with two entirely different ones. As Postman writes, 'civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its contents' (p. 70 ' italics in original).

It's hard, I know, not only to do but to convince yourself of. Still, if we're serious about individual liberty, we need to wean ourselves away from the trivializing, indoctrinating media, from the television and the radio and the newspapers. We have to stop filling our minds with 'news' about Adelaide's whooping cough. We can't do anything about that. The annihilation of space applies only to information, and we only have room in our minds for so much. We must, as the poet Diane Wakoski reminds us in Greed, pick and choose ' and we must do so wisely. We must work within our own limited space. We have only a limited amount of time and energy; we have only a limited amount of life.

Pick and choose. It's up to you.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.