In a world as complicated as ours, there’s no way we can really understand what’s happening unless we’re willing to make an investment of time. But many of us simply will not do that. We are too involved in our own lives, too busy, too distracted, and too apathetic to pay attention to most vital issues. Thus, huge problems like illegal immigration and energy dependence go unsolved for decades because the powers that be know we’re not paying attention.
The rise of worldwide terrorism is the best example of the powerful failing to be proactive. President Clinton knew al Qaeda was growing in strength and militancy, but failed to warn the nation. When President Bush took over in 2001, he also mostly ignored the festering threat. The result was 3,000 Americans dead in the street.
Ask yourself this question: Before September 11, 2001, had you heard the name Osama bin Laden? Did you know anything about the Taliban? Even those of us in the news business had little frame of reference about those killers. So there was virtually no pressure on Clinton and Bush to do anything.
Machines are part of the reason Americans continue to be ill-informed. Younger people, especially, spend hours in front of the computer, playing games and engaging in idle chat. When they do get their butts up off the chair, they slap on iPods and have sound piped directly into their brains. Tiring of that, they flick on the tube and watch a variety of mind-numbing “reality” shows.
The result: According to a survey done by National Geographic, 63% of Americans ages 18 to 24 can’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. And, incredibly, 25% of that age could not even identify Dick Cheney as Vice President.
Research shows that news consumption amongst Americans under the age of 50 is drastically declining. TV news ratings skew old, and newspaper circulation is generally plummeting. One explanation is that Americans can now get the news online. Okay, fine. But those internet headlines barely skim the surface of complicated matters, and many websites have absolutely no editorial standards. They print rank propaganda and libel all day long.
So the USA is now entering an age of issue illiteracy. Older Americans still remember civics classes and geography tests and dinner table discussions about their country. Many younger Americans will never experience those things. Thus, as technology shrinks the globe, it is also providing an escape from the world. The iPod people can avoid real life constantly and entirely.
Our society is so intellectually undemanding that uninformed entertainers like the Dixie Chicks can comment negatively on foreign policy and be rewarded with a Time Magazine cover. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie can have a baby and receive more attention than the Senate vote on illegal immigration. And Barry Bonds can cheat his way to home run records and still command standing ovations in San Francisco.
The USA used to be a nation that valued knowledge and rallied around national standards. Now we have become Balkanized—each of us can easily create individual electronic fantasy worlds. Why face a world full of terror and confusing angst when you can drift off into iPod land?
Ultimately, mass electronic escape will lead to a very few exercising vast power over the distracted many. That, of course, is not the system the Founders envisioned. But when more votes are cast for American Idol contestants than for Presidential candidates, you know “the times, they are a changin’.” And not for the better.