The Video at the bottom of the page is from Bill O’Reilly on Last Friday’s show. I do not post it as a political commentary (this is not a political blog), but as a social commentary. In it he wonders whether or not American’s are living increasingly in a world of their own.
I too have wondered this. When I was young, a teenager, there was something of the shared experience of three networks, and the UHF Channel, plus a PBS channel. Most of us kids listened to one radio station with a pop/rock format. And the basic TV shows that influenced us (for worse and sometimes for better) were pretty widely seen and known by everyone. Typical conversation on a Wednesday morning at school was the Tuesday evening episode of “Happy Days.” Not exactly edifying, but it was a shared experience.
News-wise there was also the same rather shared experience of the national news on NBC, CBS or ABC. It is true, it was slanted left, politically, but in those days there was also a wider middle ground that was covered.
Much of all this has changed. It is increasingly possible for many of us to live in our “own little world,” in a kind of self-selected universe.
For example, I don’t listen much to radio any more. Instead I have set up my iPod to download favorite podcasts. I have also loaded only the music I like. Satellite Radio also narrow-casts a very specific genre of music or information. T.V. too can be cherry picked. I can TiVo what I want, and skip the rest.
As for news, here too I can decide who informs me. I pick the blogs and websites that will inform me. As for newspapers and broadcast TV news, they are no longer part of my life. I do not read the paper. Frankly it lost my business as it became increasingly partisan, while still claiming the mantle of balanced journalism. The same is true for broadcast news. At least the two main cable news outlets, Foxnews and MSNBC are quite clear where they are coming from. But again, they cater to very specific niches, and if they are all their viewers watch, the world becomes very self-selected.
Even with blogs which might provide a variety of subjects, I can set up an RSS feed and screen what I really want to read. Cable TV in general also has increasingly narrow subject matters, there’s a golf channel and a Home and Garden Channel, the Science channel, History Channel, a cooking channel or two and let’s not forget EWTN.
The bottom line is that increasingly I can very carefully control the content of my life, what will influence me and what will be my daily fare.
On the other hand, while, until recently there wasn’t the kind of choice that we have today, we were stuck with three networks and whatever junk was on tended to have exaggerated influence. The news on these networks was usually quite left of center and gave the impression that everyone thought the same way. And to some extent they did. Networks had too much power in those days. Beyond the news, in regular programming one was often exposed to a daily fare on these networks of stupidity, dysfunctional families, and sometimes crudely sexual content. The rock and pop music I grew up with also had a very monolithic influence on my generation and encouraged hatred of authority, promiscuity, drug use and generally unedifying behavior. Once again the limited selections made the “mainstream” stuff too powerful. But now I have options and can rather carefully craft the world I live in.
To a certain extent this ability to craft my world is wonderful. In terms of the moral life it allows a kind of custody of the eyes and ears. I can limit the influence of many and bad things that once were able to reach me. I can be careful of what I listen to and what I look at. Scripture says: A discerning man keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth (Prov 17:24). Or again: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. (Prov 4:23-25).
So, I can more carefully screen what will influence me and with more options I am more likely to choose that which is good.
But if we begin to live in increasingly separate worlds what do we share? More and more I find that people mention events, and people that I have never heard of. To some extent I am proud of this for the emptiness of what works some people up amazes me. Some years ago everyone started talking about some one named J.Lo I finally asked who this was and after some moments of incredulous stares I was informed somewhat irritably that this was Jennifer Lopez. Unfortunately the full name didn’t help since I still didn’t know who she was, and why I should care that she was breaking up with some dude. To this day I still couldn’t tell you a thing about Jennifer Lopez.
OK that’s a silly example. But the point is that many people live in increasingly separate worlds and the shared cultural experience is lost. This can surely affect Evangelization and the preaching task enormously. Perhaps I exaggerate the threat a bit and our self selected worlds are not that tightly sealed. But more and more I find it harder to understand what people are talking about.
I also find that many people don’t have a clue as to what I am talking about either. Often they have not heard of basic biblical figures and stories. Increasingly they are unfamiliar with Church teachings, feast days and basic theological terms. The clear challenge is that we have to get our message “out there.” But lately there are a lot of “theres” out there! The opportunities to communicate are enormous but so are the challenges as many people (me included) continue to live in a world that is more and more a self-selected universe which shuts out all unwanted influence and only admits what is pleasing and affirming but far less challenging and expansive.
The self-selected universe can greatly aid a proper custody of the eyes but it also runs the risk of becoming insular.
Ultimately this is the same point that Bill O’Reilly makes in this clip. And while his argument is essentially political, it is not wrong to wonder whether Americans are really informed at all about the basic political issues that may have tremendous influence on their life. Further, how is it possible even to get anyone’s attention anymore when we live in such self-enclosed universes.
Today I walked passed three people on the sidewalk and said hello. None of them responded. They were staring into their cell phones. They did not even know I existed.