The Age of Missing Information, by Bill McKibben.

In 1990 ecologist Bill McKibben undertook an experiment: watch 24 hours of television broadcast on one day on all the channels of his home's cable system (over 90 channels), spend 24 hours camped by a mountaintop near a small pond, and compare and contrast the information gained on each day. Naturally, the 24-hour cable day lasted much longer than one day, as the author needed to gather numerous videotapes from friends and colleagues and then spend weeks and months watching what could only be imagined as a lot of the same. But he patiently watched every minute (minus reruns), even commercials, and documents a fraction of it here.

McKibben's findings -- that the information television gives us is not a substitute for the information we discover living directly with our natural surroundings -- is not groundbreaking; if anything one gets the notion that it wouldn't take the equivalent of 93 24-hour days to reach this conclusion. Nevertheless, he is able to touch on a variety of misinformation, if you will, that is perpetuated 15+ years to this day and make this book all the more valuable, especially as television expands its reach to the internet and mobile phones, so even one in nature will not be removed from TV's influence.

One example is consumption, in the Late Afternoon chapter (the book starts at 6 a.m. and ends at the same time the following day, making it both a linear and cyclical journey). McKibben sees a trend in the proliferation of shopping channels and infomercials: you are encouraged to buy because the act of buying will make you feel good. The transcription of a conversation on QVC and an infomercial will definitely sound familiar to people who have lingered on these channels longer than they'd wished, though McKibben frames the infomercial's ability to sell us something because it's a deal (not because we need what they're selling) with nature's complete lack of shopping. Sure, one can load themselves with the latest gear to make a trek into nature, but once there a tree isn't going to sell them anything, nor will a frog or deer. An experience free from shopping will make one question the notion of consumption and consider what is needed.

Another example that comes near the end of the book is how television, by constantly referring to itself and limiting subjects to those post-1940s (minus things like Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, which is ironically composed of mainly still photos and letters read aloud), is very self-conscious and in turn creates a context for watching more TV. The most dangerous aspect of this self-consciousness is when television acknowledges that watching TV is not the best use of our time, while at the same time making it okay by acknowledging it. An example McKibben illustrates is an MTV ad that ends with the words, "they're [the words on the screen] just sitting here....LIKE YOU." It reinforces the notion that viewers are under no illusion that they're not just sitting there; they know they're not being forced to watch TV, but at that moment they want to, to wind down after a hard day, for example.

So if television by its nature is becoming smarter to ways of keeping us watching, is it making us smarter? This reviewer would say no, though I would take McKibben's message (TV can't replace the information of the natural world) to mean we must balance our daily lives and experiences so we're not out of tune with the world around us. By isolating our experiences and learning to what's piped through cable and mediated by others, we run the risk of, for example, mistreating nature because we're unable to hear her signals. We don't even need to spend 24 hours on a mountaintop near a pond to learn this other information, we just need to get outside away from the TV as much as we can.

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2007.05.14