Although Bill McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information was written in the year 1990, its central tenets still ring true over two decades later. McKibben embarks on an unusual experiment of sorts, comparing the information and insight gleaned from 24 hours spent in nature with that imparted by 24 hours of television. This was before the dawn of the internet, when the most transformative technology introduced during the lives of the majority of Americans was the television. McKibben’s innovative project yields keen observations about the way that our society has been vastly changed by this single technological advancement.
I’ve become quite a fan of McKibben as of late. Though I don’t quite share in his religiosity, Mr. McKibben’s environmentally-conscious, anti-consumer sensibility is extremely amenable to my own while his liberal politics very nearly mirror my own. Sharing such a mindset with the talented writer and social critic lends itself to a desire to read his books, but what really sets McKibben apart for me is his ability to impart the severity of the changes we have wrought. Reading his analysis of the myriad ways that television has transformed how we give and receive information, communicate with one another, structure family and community life, and conceptualize ourselves and our world and our place in that world imparts a small sense of doom given that the internet has so vastly compounded the issues TV has wrought. McKibben has an uncanny ability to bring home just how fundamental the topic of this piece is while retaining a sense of hope for necessary change.
I would hate to recount McKibben’s major arguments here and spare you the pleasure of discovering them for yourself in his book. But I can’t avoid making mention of his contention that television almost counterintuitively decreases the size and scope of our worlds. We tell ourselves that, since we can watch TV and catch a glimpse of life as experienced nearly anywhere in the world, we are reaping the benefits of globalization and creating stronger and more vast communities. But in succumbing to the lure of the boob tube, we’re ever more isolated from our true communities, the ones composed of our physical neighbors, coworkers, friends, family networks, and more. Is going global really better than staying local? If we sever the connections forged between the people who live right outside our door, are we really doing better by ourselves, our neighbors, or our country at large?
Then there’s also the idea that watching television enhances our lives. People believe that they are engaged, learning, and made happier vis a vis their television set. Well McKibben is here to argue to the contrary. TV only engages two of our senses and narrows our field of vision to the point where we’re no longer cognizant of the peripheral visual information our eyes absorb, like the television set itself, the shelf upon which it sits or the wall in front of which it is located. While there is a seemingly infinite amount of content on television, the state in which viewers find themselves makes it extremely difficult for that new knowledge to be fully consumed and digested. And the way in which it is presented, in transitory two-dimensional soundbites and snapshots, quickly replaced by words and images on a new topic, makes it nearly impossible for our brains to truly retain anything offered on TV. Before television, knowledge was learned by experience, deep concentration, and thorough training. People practiced crafts as apprentices for years before taking on the profession themselves and poured over reading material of all sorts to ensure they were thoroughly well-versed on the topic of their expertise. We’re kidding ourselves if we imagine that those hard-learned and well-earned skills and pieces of knowledge from the days of yore can be so easily transmitted nowadays through the medium of television.
And these are just the beginnings of what McKibben has to say about TV. His contemplations on the set and all it entails are entertaining and thought-provoking, sure to leave you considering your own television habits and how the presence (or absence) of a TV has shaped your world. The purpose of McKibben’s book is not to banish the TV or to trash the American media, but rather he makes a case that we need to reconsider what television means for us individually and as a society living in what was once a natural world. If we don’t stop to think about the effects of TV now, we may very well dig ourselves into multiple holes out of which we will have no hope of emerging.
Prior to reading McKibben’s book, I had made a personal effort to abstain from screens as much as possible. While schoolwork, emails, and blogging are pursuits that require a computer screen and I have trouble completely abolishing, I’ve found it quite easy to avoid the television screen. Sure, there are days when I succumb to an episode of Gilmore Girls here and there, but for the most part I resort to more engaging, challenging, and fulfilling forms of entertainment in my rare moments of free time. And I’ve found that the joy of reading a book, playing with my dog, or talking to my husband are far superior to the temporary benefit imparted by the TV. When I’m reading a book, I have a much greater sense of where my time has gone. I can track the minutes by the number of pages I’ve read, the points of plot uncovered, whereas half an hour of TV can easily turn into four or five and a night well wasted. I was never a huge TV-junkie before but The Age of Missing Information has highlighted some of the benefits of a reduced-television life that I never even imagined previously.
Television is a hallmark of American culture, one that has shaped our lives and produced some true works of art. But it is a technology not without its hazards and is best consumed in moderation. McKibben makes a case for a new conception of this age of information as one of missing information, for far too often our obsession with television leaves something else essential out. My hope, and one that I imagine Bill McKibben shares too, is that we can get a better grasp on what we’re missing before its too late to ever recover.