How quickly we have come to the awakening--overnight, it seems--that things aren’t working any more. How quickly these rude new understandings have passed into common knowledge: that our systems are failing; that we’re tired of our toys; that our wars only make us ashamed. On our editorial pages and as we’re going to sleep at night, listening for noises, we wonder: What’s gone wrong?
Along comes Bill McKibben, a writer who’s not afraid to take on big questions. His first book envisioned no less than “The End of Nature.” His second one is just as ambitious--downright heroic, considering the abuse he put himself through. He taped everything that was on U.S. television for one 24-hour period--every blessed minute on all 403 network and cable channels, from the first Christian calisthenics at sunrise to the last sorry rerun of “Gilligan’s Island.” Then McKibben forced himself to sit down and watch it. All of it. For eight hours a day he stared at these fleeting images of one day in our life, May 3, 1990, these archeovideo shards, these billions of bits of shared memory.
It took him months. Then, late that summer, he walked out the back door of his house in the Adirondacks, hiked up a mountain, and sat there, doing nothing, for an equal amount of time: one day.
It was an experiment--to see what kinds of information each day imparted. As he states at the outset: “We believe that we live in the ‘age of information,’ that there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information,” he calls it.
“Our society is moving steadily from natural sources of information toward electronic ones, from the mountain and the field toward the television; this great transition is very nearly complete. And so we need to understand the two extremes. One is the target of our drift. The other an anchor that might tug us gently back, a source of information that once spoke clearly to us and now hardly even whispers.”
It’s a masterful premise for a book, one that causes other writers to ask: Why didn’t I think of that? The traditional intellectual view, of course, is that TV is a waste. But assault-by-subject-matter can be a powerful literary device. McKibben has come up with a unique, bizarre portrait of our life and times.
During the endless TV day that he drifts through, like a man under drugs in the dentist’s chair, he gets lost in far-far cable land. He sits through “Outdoors Wisconsin” and “Sig’s Celebrity Kitchen” and “The Insurance Corner” and “Super Sloppy Double Dare.” He gazes at the crawl of community-service messages over in public-access land.
On the shopping channel he is implored to purchase a paint-by-number kit of The Last Supper (“Give yourself the pride of accomplishment!”). Along the way he picks up random scraps of knowledge. On Showtime he learns that the Voyager space probe carries a recording of our planet’s greetings in the voice of Kurt Waldheim.
Our Captain Video gets lost, most eerily, in rerun land. He sees the same faces coming back time and again and again, and again: Maynard G. Krebs, Jacques Cousteau, Arte Johnson, Marlo Thomas. On “Father Knows Best” he watches Bud go out for the football team. This is our mythology, he concedes, a child of the TV age himself. This is all we’ve got left. The earlier stuff we’ve forgotten. TV keeps showing us the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s in endless repetition, because it knows only how to refer to itself. Our cultural history goes back merely to the little monster’s birth. “We are happily trapped in a familiar museum,” he writes, “condemned to know in unbelievable detail the attitudes and styles of this one strange period.”
By now the electronic media have become an environment of their own. “To the list of neighborhood and region and continent and planet,” he says, “we must now add television as a place where we live. And the problem is not that it exists--the problem is that it supplants. Its simplicity makes complexity hard to fathom.”
For the better part of the book, then, he catalogues the consequences of pigging out at this global convenience store of the air: how we’ve settled for second-hand experience and forgotten our skills for self-sufficiency; how we’ve lost touch with our spirituality, with pleasure and pain, with all of our senses save hearing and sight; how our notion of community has been reduced to sitting around the bar on “Cheers.” He quotes a finding that 72% of us don’t know our neighbors. Certainly, TV is not to blame for all of this. It’s a pretty empty picture, and I’m afraid that he draws it convincingly.
Now and then McKibben steps back to tell us about the day he spent sitting on that mountaintop. Up there he was stirred by the sight of vultures wheeling overhead, by the wind in the trees, by the sunlight reflecting off the ripples in a pond. He jumps into the pond, takes a swim, sits on a rock feeling a cool breeze lift the hairs off his back. Real nature, he reflects, is not nearly as exciting as the TV nature programs, which need to show a birth or a death or a mating dance every minute or two. Television has no patience. Real life requires patience.
But it is interesting, I think, that despite his affections for the natural world, McKibben spends most of this book describing and commenting upon the world-in-a-box. It’s what he has to talk about, or thinks we need to hear about. In the end, helplessly it seems, we bipeds are more fascinated with what we’ve created than with what we haven’t. It eases the loneliness of being human, to recognize our own footprints. Looking at a beautiful landscape, who doesn’t like to see a cottage in the foreground?
By the same token, I wish that Bill McKibben had shown us a little more of himself. Adept as he is at clarifying his thoughts and sensibilities (as well as ours), he might have used some of that time on the mountain to reflect upon his wife, or the sweetness of his suburban childhood, or how he missed someone he’d left behind. It might have deepened the eventual effectiveness of his message. When I think back to Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” what I remember best are not the intellectual games that Phaedrus played but his recurring dreams about his son standing on the other side of a glass door, trying to get in.
It is nighttime now in the many-splendored never-never lands of television, and on the mountaintop, too. The young writer sits beside his tent, looking up at the stars. He feels properly small. He muses that this sense of humility is not an idea he picked up from TV. TV has no interest in the stars--at least not those in the sky--because they don’t reflect us, in any way. The single most important lesson that nature can teach human beings, the camper thinks, is that we are in fact not the center of the universe.
He is right on about this. As a nation we’ve come down with tunnel vision. We stare at the screen “like a pitcher staring in at the catcher’s mitt.” But how many people will hear Bill McKibben? Who’s going to see him up there on his mountain? This book’s only real failing is that it’ll never be made into a mini-series.