When left unchecked, our addictions often turn against us and begin to operate against our better interests. Proponents of the addiction as disease model will argue that our addictions afflict us despite our values. I would assert the opposite: Our addictions afflict us because of our values.
Such is the case in 21st-century America, with our obsessions and addictions to all things media and all things digital. Rather than produce a better-informed citizenry and improve the quality of our lives, our addiction to perpetual and thoroughly ubiquitous entertainment and news has begun to turn against us. It is leaving us confused, fearful, overworked and underpaid, overinsured and underemployed, chronically sleep-deprived, obese and increasingly inert.
History is replete with warnings from those who have considered the effects of too much information and unexamined fealty to our tools. Consider Solomon’s lament in Ecclesiastes 1:12-18…
"I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow."
More recently, the 20th-century media prophet Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric observed that media systems pushed to extremes will begin to operate in reverse -- which might explain why we now use our sophisticated communications tools so frequently to shut down communications, or why the first thing we do each time we sit down to our email inboxes is determine who we don’t want to acknowledge.
“Men,” as Thoreau once remarked, “have become the tools of their tools.”
All of which is great news for the global media players. They know deep down in their corporate DNA that commercial media sells two things exceedingly well: fear and envy. Of course, nothing sells fear and envy better than politics; nothing sells politics better than political campaigns; and nothing is more welcome for the media networks -- especially during a deep recession -- than a steady torrent of campaign dollars.
Ergo, we now live in a state of perpetual political campaigns, a wholly manufactured environment designed to polarize and convince us that the scoundrels and opportunists on Wall Street are somehow different from the scoundrels and opportunists in Congress and the White House. In fact, they’re the exact same scoundrels and opportunists at different stages of their careers.
The perpetual political campaign environment promotes and sustains the interests of an already corrupt, incestuous and elite entitlement culture, and all but guarantees a steady flow of campaign dollars to an equally elite and incestuous media -- all by design and all (perversely) offered up in the name of democracy and freedom of speech.
Next week in part 2 of "Fear and Envy on the Campaign Trail," I’ll explore the digitally driven media mythology of red state versus blue state and describe the true threat to democracy. Stay tuned…