Thanks to radio, television, the Internet, and ubiquitous mobile devices, Americans appear to be more connected, more informed, and more in touch with one another than ever before.
I was reflecting on this while listening to terrible music on my way to work. The song had a familiar beat and was based on the same four chords used in every other song these days.
I began to wonder whether there are strict parameters regarding tempo or chord progressions for admittance to the “variety” radio station.
I began to wonder whether this “uniformizing” of music is a government conspiracy intended to alter people’s neurons in some advantageous way.
Then I began to wonder why I was listening to this music at all. Am I not interesting enough to travel with, alone, on a car ride?
Americans surround themselves with voices that come through radios, internet browsers, and cell phones. This is particularly noticeable with people in their teens and twenties who are constantly consulting little handheld screens. At first glance, this would suggest that we are deathly afraid of being alone—I think that is not quite the case.
Look at the reasons for our “connectivity.” We follow news stories of current events that are happening far, far away from us. We look up Top Tens and Three Easy Steps on the Internet so we do not have to get further acquainted with the subject. Cell phones and texting give us constant casual conversations with people whom we (apparently) do not have the time to go and see. We gather with friends to watch television. Teens interact through video games–sometimes not even from within the same house. We put speakers into our ears to shut out the world around us and listen instead to airbrushed celebrities. The voices with which we surround ourselves come from a safe distance and generate only small talk. For we are afraid, not only of being alone, but also of being with people.
Part of this comes from our culture’s individualism and gnosticism. We wish to pick and choose those idealized parts of the world that are most pleasant to us, and hold them up before ourselves rather than deal with reality and all its inconveniences and awkward pauses.
More importantly, this reflects our culture’s obsession with media, and I do not mean the media of music, video, and so on. Etymologically speaking, a medium is “that which stands between.” An artistic medium is something like paint, print, or sound that stands between us and an artist’s ideas–necessarily so, because we could not otherwise see ideas themselves. Media, in the plural, have been made so available and people are so dependent upon them, that we now use them to stand between us and things that can be seen: real people and experiences. We throw up walls of media around ourselves and say that we are bringing so many more experiences within reach. Yet in our little prophylactic sanctuaries of self we know that we are safe from ever having to reflect on who we are. We are afraid to be without our phones because we would rather be on the phone than be with anyone in person, even ourselves.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with connecting through telephony or sharing entertainment with friends. However, far too often we use technology, not to commune with others, but to surround ourselves with the semblance of community as we strive to flee from all that comes with fully being in real community.
This is because our twin fears of being alone and of being with people boil down to a fear of knowing ourselves (at its root, this is probably the same source of our fear of commitment, but that is an article for another day).
Alone on my commute without the radio playing its single, stultifying song, I would have nothing to listen to except my own thoughts; I would discover what I am like. Sitting quietly in a friend’s garage after the children have gone to bed, talking about cars or cuisine or snippets of the books we have been reading, we discover each other–we find out what the other person is like—with no technological medium to shield us.