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.