Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The inner landscape

For thousands of generations our forebears lived in the tangible world, surrounded by family and companions in a world with few strangers, engaged in the vital, heavy-breathing work of creating their own food and shelter. Like birds building nests from twigs, we develop an interior world out of our memories of the exterior, and their memories and dreams would have been of real things; time spent with loved ones, of a change in the seasons, the smell of an animal or the anticipation of violence.

Whether as Paleo-lithic foragers fifty millennia ago or Irish villagers fifty years ago, most of our ancestors grew up intimately knowing the landscape and seasons as children today know their video games. Campfire songs – the ones we now read as the Iliad, or the Psalms, or Beowulf – accounted for the time and space outside one’s experience, and told our forebears who they were as a people.

In more recent generations some of our ancestors could also draw on the writings of others who came before, without relying on memory. Legends and poems, mathematics and logic, histories and philosophies, could be passed down in the same form through the ages, and their presence in the lives of each generation provided an umbilical cord to the wisdom of the ages. The Roman child who read Hesiod or Horace might have shared some of the same questions, and felt the same inspiration, as the medieval acolyte who did the same five or ten centuries later. He, in turn, might have felt some commonality with the Victorian school-boy or American pioneer family reading the same words.

By several generations ago our forebears would been able to read newspapers, gather in town halls to run their community or in coffee shops to debate philosophy, and as transportation grew faster, they could trade ideas more readily. Guilds of skilled professionals arose to communicate a great deal of information in a small space, and their new knowledge – “the news” could enlighten, anger or inspire millions of people as swiftly as it could be spread.

Today, though, reading has faded, with both the number of readers and their competency plummeting – but more than that, it has become genuinely difficult in public. Most public places in Ireland have acquired television screens in the last ten years -- offices, bus depots, restaurants, even coffee shops. Even the double-decker bus we ride in to work and back contains a screen, displaying the road in front of us – and the passengers are so well trained that when they want to see the road in front of us, they look at the small video screen rather than the giant window showing a better view of the same thing.

This constant barrage of media in our lives does far more damage, I suspect, than we realise. Just as a pop song, heard over and over, begins to play unbidden in our heads, so the images and sounds we receive from this electronic media roll around in our consciousness until, when we reconstruct abstract thoughts, we inevitably use scraps of the media world. Frequent video game players tell me that they now dream their games, which must feel more real to them than the uncooperative physical world of people. When I think of anyone from history – the Spartans at Thermopylae, for example, or Mahatma Gandhi – I’m inevitably picturing actors in a Hollywood movie.

I can’t judge too harshly the people wrapped in their own electronic worlds, for I do enough of it myself; obviously I keep a blog, and you’re reading it. What I resent is the constant distraction of public screens that makes reading or conversation more difficult, and drives us each into our own, expensive private screens and earbuds, separating us from each other.

Similarly, just as we must now cope with visual stimulation everywhere, so must we do with sounds. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, playing the same jingles over and over until I hear them even in silence.

We are likely too accustomed to this by now to notice the problems this creates. Some studies show increased background noise reduces concentration and memory. We also likely don’t notice the hearing loss, but a study in the 1990s found that it had trebled in the previous 30 years, and that was 20 years ago. No wonder rappers seems to get louder every year, as malls and offices slowly increase the loudspeaker volume to be heard above all the other background noises in the same imperceptibly gradual arms race.

A more basic problem, though, is that we have little control over this media, short of asking people to turn it off – which I do, to the annoyance of shopkeepers and bus drivers alike. When we can’t persuade people to turn off the loudspeakers, we are a captive audience; we are forced to listen to advertisements, telling us our lives are terrible because we don’t have their products. We must listen to news announcements that try to convince us to fear, despise or admire people we will never meet, who don’t know or care about us.

Here, too, more and more people deal with the increasing noise with earbuds and a private reverie of our own chosen sounds, but that only increases our isolation from each other, a kind of deafness to the world around us. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing, each in their enforced solitude. 

How different that is from the way music was for people only a few generations ago. People here used to walk to each other’s homes in the evenings, I’m told, with a fiddle or other instrument with them and a canon of stories and songs inside them. The songs did not have the electronic sound effects and drum machines of today’s recordings; they were meant to be sung by ordinary voices in unison, inviting everyone to take part. They kept the rhythms of the chores and seasons, imparted folk wisdom that our culture has forgotten, and sometimes kept alive the rituals of family, the rapture of prayer and the embers of rebellion through the centuries.

The songs varied from one family or village to the next, organically evolving and cross-pollinating, mixing lyrics a thousand years old with one ten years old - building on the past while respecting it. Nor was music limited to rural sing-a-longs; street workers whistled at their jobs, and vendors sang out their wares. In fact, public singing seems to have been present in most times and places; only recently has it begun to disappear.

Storytelling has followed a similar path; a few generations ago families here spent the long winter nights with rounds of stories – of brave warriors and faithful women, of ghosts and fairies. Like playing music, telling stories takes talent and practice; it is an act in more than one sense, a performance that requires the speaker to know or assess their listeners and know what they want before they do. It could not be further removed from the passivity required to stare at a screen for hours.

You can see similar trends across all kinds of human activities. Children’s games like mumblety-peg or hopscotch have existed for hundreds of years – no one knows how long – and have largely disappeared; I know many young people who have never heard of them. Playing cards were once the normal pastime for adults, whether among London Cavaliers or 1950s suburbanites, but I know few people who play them anymore. Today, riding on the bus to work and back each day, I see many passengers “playing games” – moving electrons around a screen -- but every one of them does so alone.

Many communities once had a variety of newspapers -- city, state, labour and church papers, each with a unique point of view but generally written by knowledgeable professionals. We could disagree on political issues, of course, and read different papers, but the papers competed for the same public, and the members of that public spoke to each other. Now, however, most people I meet gets their news from one of a billion web sites, coming from anywhere in the world or nowhere, often staffed by unaccountable and unknown strangers, trained in nothing, with absent or unknowable standards, beholden to no one. The assumption that there is a “news,” a shared reality that we can all talk about, seems to be slipping away unnoticed. 

Thus, a child in early 20th-century America, or late 20th-century Ireland, might have played children’s games, read the classics, attended plays or played cards as an adult, sang or told stories in the evenings, attended a social gathering after work and church on Sunday morning. They would have built or fixed most of their own belongings, grown some of their own food and known intimately the hopes and fears of their neighbours. They would have been part of something larger than themselves; hardship and fear were lessened because they were shared, while milestones and joys were greater because they were shared.

With minor differences, all those things would have been true of their ancestors five hundred years earlier, and five hundred years before that, and five hundred years before that.  Today, though, that umbilical thread of continuity has almost broken; the old songs and stories are fading, their keepers few and elderly, falling away from our lives like dead petals and never replaced.

The strains of Western culture, with local variants in numberless local villages and neighbourhoods, have been replaced in the minds of most children – and by physical adults who are still children inside -- by a thousand “communities” that exist on the other side of a glowing screen. Spend too long in those communities and you absorb their beliefs by osmosis, simply because you have heard their version of the news for so long.

I see my friends grow increasingly militant for a cause – political, religious sexual – after those ideas suddenly became popular in online “communities.” I doubt that so many people came up with the same strained ideas at the same time; rather, people find meaning in being part of something, and they don’t find it in the real world anymore. And since they get all their information this way, they never have to hear news that doesn’t affect their own beliefs, talk to people from different bubbles than their own, or test their attitudes against reality.

The good news, of course, is that this older world still exists all around us; all that we need to do, once in a while, is turn off the screen and look around. Ironically, that can be a lonely experience, if you are the only one who wants to talk on the bus, or play cards, or read with no loudspeakers blasting in the background.

Thankfully, I know many people who value older ways of life, all over the world, and are reaching out and meeting others like them, and keeping the old threads of community alive in their neighbourhoods.

Inevitably, and also ironically, they usually have to look for each other online. 


Anonymous said...

Yes, it is sad to see the world changing in this way. I don't travel on public transport any more, but I'm told that most people are talking loudly on their phones, have music playing or are playing games now. I don't think I could tolerate it for long.

When I go into a shop where loud music is playing, I usually walk right out again, but if there's time for a salesperson to ask me if I need help, I usually reply that I'd like to browse, but just can't stand the loud music! Not sure if the message gets through.

It just occurred to me that my specialist doesn't have a TV in his waiting room (although my GP does). I must remember to congratulate him on that, next visit.

Brian Kaller said...

Food, I know a lot of people on my bus who don't like it, but who don't complain -- Irish tend to put up with things, to a fault. I, on the other hand, speak to the driver, and most are conciliatory.

I'm interested in what happens when those people who've grown up with constant stimulation have to go without it.

Steve Carrow said...

I see this trend or transition as well, but I also wonder what in humans desires the pseudo reality. It is not happening just because of profit driven corporations and smart advertising technicians. Us "consumers" have some neurological or psychological craving for these ephemeral and shallow media, or they would not be so captivating and successful. It is a puzzle.

Mary said...

This is such a wonderful post. Matthew Crawford discusses similar ideas in his book, The World Beyond Your Head. Im hopeful that there's a movement of people who are getting sick of all the noise and distractions.

I work in an intensive care nursery and am fascinated by the behavior of those visiting the babies. People rarely just sit. Family members and friends eventually pull out their phones to start texting or playing games, even when holding the babies. We have books on the unit and encourage reading to the babies, but most people don't ever pick those books up. I've been a nurse for over 20 years so I remember when visitors would sit at a patient's beside while patients slept or rested, maybe reading or knitting or praying. When the patient was ready for a chat, those visitors were less distracted than the ones I see now. They were present in a way that people rarely are now.

There's a bar in Donegal, in Carrigart, called Logue's. Every Monday night they have a session called Raised on Songs and Stories. My cousins and I went on my recent visit and it was lovely. There are invited guests, musicians, singers, storytellers, poets. The audience is also invited to join in. I think the session works so well because it combines music with the storytelling. There's something in us that longs for stories...even in this age of distraction.

Steve, I think noise/distraction are like a drug to the brain...I think the craving comes after the exposure. It's up to us to fight it, but you have to make a conscious effort and I think a lot of people have forgotten there are other options besides being lulled by the "ephemeral and shallow media." Also, all the mindless stimulation we are exposed to in the modern world is exhausting. I think a lot of people are simply tired and lack the energy to seek out the real.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160826T144929Z

This is so good - including even that wonderful concluding photo, on the metaphysically pertinent theme of islands.

I was struck by the phrasing We must listen to news announcements that try to convince us to fear, despise or admire people we will never meet /.../ Exactly. The media keep trying to get us worked up over things of slight consequence, so that we can keep viewing their adverts.

I would like to remark, trying to offer some consolation, on a positive thing here in southern Ontario. Our regional rail system, the "GO Train", reaches out from Toronto over a radius of 50 km or so. The carriages on much or all of the system are double-deckers. We have a rule that the upper deck during the morning and evening rush hours becomes a "Quiet Zone". Riders seem to respect the rule. One can sit in the reasonable assurance that there really will be silence, as in a strictly run library. The silence is specially valuable on my own line, linking Richmond Hill with Union Station: we roll through the Don Valley, with some fine natural scenery that in its own day inspired the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton and the conservationist Charles Sauriol.


Brian Kaller said...


Perhaps the virtual world is so much tidier and more exciting, and demands nothing of us. Perhaps it's that many of us grew up with televisions, and were used to living inside a screen. Or that all our peers are doing these things. Or that we are subject to a flood of media, everywhere we go, urging us to consume more of the media.

Mary, that's fascinating -- thank you. I'll have to look up that pub next time I'm in Donegal.

Toomas, thank you! I completely agree.

philsharris said...

Brian & Co
I have come over from ADR and am glad to have found the blog. I am of your persuasion.

The last years have gone very swiftly and I find I'm in the old generation, which can feel very peculiar. Half smile.

But like Toomas I might be able to sound more positive. Our youngest daughter is just turned 28 and writes stories for children and young adults. She tells us that there are many terrific stories out there and quotes David Almond, a well known British author of stories for children. He is also Professor of Creative writing under whom she studied a couple of years ago. David says he is much encouraged by the well-spring of creativity among young people. She is also a defender of internet connectivity, not least because her writing friends keep up their regular international workshops using skype.

Something which is really a follow on from the previous blog about tools - have you folks seen this young fellow and his hobby? It is not so much what he produces as the boot-strap 'one skill leads to another' approach that breaks through our invisible walls of helplessness. I know a few youngsters, even when they have started families who in different ways might match him, but his achievement is mighty impressive.


gwizard43 said...

Brian, I was going to recommend Crawford's latest book, but Mary beat me to it! This is an absolutely essential read, IMO - one of those books that alters the structure of your perceived reality in a significant way. He takes up your point about the intrusiveness of the modern world, TVs everywhere, music/muzak, etc and uses it to build an astonishingly compelling argument for rethinking our attachment to some of the Enlightenment ideals that have led to unexpected places. Having read your blog for some time, I think you will find this book a true gift, and inspiration. If you put a donation button on your blog I'd happily plump down enough to cover a copy!

(I admit that I really want to see more of the bloggers I follow read this book so that we can talk about it in the comments! :)

Meanwhile, I found this post to be one of your most moving, which is saying something. I'm one of those who read always, comment rarely. :)

The good news is, of course, all of these 'scourges of modernity' are as self-limiting as modernity itself, and I suspect the damage done will be mitigated, or even reversed within a few brief generations. We may not be around to see it, but the 'folk' movements, storytelling movements, and the like, which I do think are becoming pretty well established now and promise to become moreso, set the stage nicely. Besides, who knows what stories those folk will need? The way of the human is trial and error, centuries or millennia pass as we build our stories and cultures, not knowing which will prove adaptive, which will not. The dark age that JMG talks about is, IMO, inevitable, but so, I think, are the ecotechnic cultures that will emerge many centuries in the future. Plenty of time for stories...

Thanks so much for writing this thoughtful and insightful blog - I enjoy it on so many levels!

- Oz