An Informative Talk With a 'Missing' Author

"This book is about an experiment," Bill McKibben writes in "The Age of Missing Information."

The experiment began on May 3, 1990, when, helped by accomplices with VCRs, McKibben collected 2,000 hours of videotape representing nearly every minute of television--from TV evangelists to "The Brady Bunch"--that aired on the vast Fairfax, Va., cable system of nearly 100 channels during a 24-hour period.

McKibben, an environmentalist whose first book was "The End of Nature," spent the ensuing months in his home in New York's Adirondack Mountains, studying what he had. It's not that McKibben found no information in his eclectic video archive, only that the information he did find was, overwhelmingly, useless ("Only 11% of Americans feel the penny should be banned").

At a time when communications technology is exploding, McKibben seems to be saying, we are hearing more and knowing less.

It's possible that McKibben was extremely unlucky and just happened to pick a 24-hour period when television was particularly empty and irrelevant. It's just as possible that "The Brady Bunch" inspired "Twin Peaks."

I was able to read only half of "The Age of Missing Information" before interviewing McKibben, who spoke by phone from San Francisco before flying to Los Angeles on the second leg of a book tour that includes appearances on television. Thus, the medium whose vacuousness McKibben chronicles so wittily and perceptively in his book is now being used by him to promote his book. Well, business is business.

Fortunately for interviewers, there is no need to read McKibben's book, for the publicity packet distributed to the media by his publisher, Random House, contains a lengthy list of "suggested interview questions."

It seems fitting that the publisher of a book about an information void would assume--probably correctly--that interviewers would not be reading the book they would be discussing with McKibben and, like the William Hurt character in "Broadcast News," would have to be fed questions. Thus, having no information ourselves would not hinder our interviewing the author of a book about missing information. For the first time, I felt like a talk-show host.

I wondered why Random House didn't go a step further, though, and also distribute the answers, thereby eliminating the need for having the interview at all.

In interviewing McKibben, I did not depart from the publisher's "suggested" questions. In one instance, I even repeated a typo that made part of the question meaningless, but McKibben answered it anyway. Here are some of the "suggested" questions I asked and portions of McKibben's answers:

Q: One of the things you write about at some length ate (the word should have been are ) the nature documentaries on television. Don't they let us look at all sorts of creatures and places we wouldn't otherwise see?

A: Yes, they do. I think that to television, nature is something that mostly happens in the rain forest, that animals are usually valued for the same things that humans are valued for, to be sexy and violent. When you see that, the natural world is devalued.

Q: Why do you call your book "The Age of Missing Information"? Isn't this the information age? What's missing?

A: What's missing is actual experience. We spend an awful lot of our lives having experiences that are packaged and that other people have experienced for us. I think that in an awful lot of people's minds, as they are sitting and watching an evening of TV, there's a small voice saying, "I could be having more fun than this, or doing something more interesting or more worthwhile."

Q: You write a lot about old shows like "The Brady Bunch" in your book. They were made decades ago. Why are they still of interest?

A: It's the things that have been on for so long, over and over again, that really shape our minds. "The Brady Bunch" is a good example, maybe the best example. It's so pervasive in our idea of what normal is and what the world should look like.

Q: The cable system you were watching featured five shopping channels. What did you learn by watching them? What about infomercials?

A: That's a good question. The shopping channels and their infomercials are interesting because they sort of strip down the other messages of television. It's obviously no secret that one of the big functions of TV is to act as a kind of anchor on a kind of consumer culture, and you really sense just how manipulated one's desires are when you watch a half-hour program trying to make you salivate over a car wax to the point that you can hardly live without it. The same is true of the shopping channels. They are incredibly good at knowing what to do and how to get at you. They hold out a vision of fulfillment through purchase.

Q: MTV has changed the whole way we think about music. Is it a change for the better?

A: Well . . . I think . . . you can't deny that there's a lot of brilliant stuff being done for MTV, but it seems to me in the end there's something really maddening about it, that you aren't allowed to figure out for yourself what things might mean, that images of songs are often replaced by someone else's image.

Q: We all seem to spend a lot of time, when we watch TV, flicking--hunting--between channels on the remote control. Why do you think it so often seems like there's really nothing on?

A: That's a good question. There's not much chance you're going to see much startling that sends you off in directions you haven't seen before. We don't use TV in that way anyway. We use TV to try to even out the world. If we switch on "Jeopardy!" at night, there is no danger that Alex Trebek is going to do something outrageous or be funnier or less funny than he was the previous night. We need that kind of timeout, but eventually the timeouts seem to last longer than the game.

Q: What was your favorite ad?

A: Ha-ha. The ad that was on the most was for a product called Jet Dry, which you added to the rinse cycle of your dishwasher. After watching this enough times, it sort of struck me that this was the kind of perfect proof that the consumer society was running out of things for us to buy, that when we're introduced to the Lady Macbeth process of trying to remove invisible stains and particles from plates, it's hard to see where the next stage is going to be.

Q: Sure, there's a lot of crap on television. But isn't there an awful lot of good stuff too? Isn't it worth having a TV for the specials and so on?

A: Hmmm. Yes, there is a lot of good stuff on TV. But it seems the interesting things about TV is that when something good is on, it tends to not matter. If Moses came on television tomorrow to deliver the Ten Commandments, he would have a larger audience than the entire Middle East when he was alive. But the minute he got off, on would come Mickey Rourke to discuss his new movie, then a pet psychiatrist, then Sally Jessy Raphael. Then you'd get up the next morning and watch "Good Morning America" again, and by this time whatever had been said by Moses the day before would be launched out of your mind in this incredible stream.

Q: Where you live, there's no reception and no cable. That makes you part of a very small minority. More Americans have television than indoor plumbing. What's it like living without television? Don't you feel cut off from the world?

A: Not particularly. We have radio. We get a newspaper. The best thing is that the information we do get from the world, we have time to think about. So more than raw data about the world, we need time to organize it in our minds instead of being constantly exposed to more and more. If there's a shortage in the world, it's not information, it's context.

Having no more "suggested" questions, I was forced to terminate the interview, thinking to myself that McKibben was all wet about this "missing information" business. Meanwhile, I returned to watching "Good Morning America," where Farrah Fawcett was thoughtfully reflecting on "Good Sports," her failed 1991 comedy series with Ryan O'Neal: "It's life, it's luck. We learned a lot from it."

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