Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Some Thoughts on Electronic Media

It has been weeks since I last posted on this blog. Fall is a very busy time at Haiku Farm it seems, with trying to get the chickens settled for Winter, another attempt at NaNoWriMo, continuing to help my son, Willy, integrate in American life and my father through his surgery and recovery in October. Throw in the Thanksgiving holiday and other odds and bits, and time flies with amazing speed!

Today's post is prompted by a new article on the web-magazine, The Art of Manliness. I discovered the magazine months ago through the auspices of LifeHacker, a daily blog of tips, shortcuts, and downloads to help make life a bit easier. I was looking for tips on building an efficient fire in our newly purchased wood stove, and LifeHacker directed me to this article.

The artwork and the content were intriguing! I spent part of my lunch hour perusing the site, and soon subscribed to the RSS feed. The Art of Manliness isn't the typical "Man mag", full of pictures of hot women and cool cars, discussing the performance of sports and entertainment figures on and off the world's stage. Instead, in their own words, it is devoted to "helping men be better husbands, better fathers, and better men." I encourage you to follow the link for the full story.

Today's article, "Amusing Ourselves Out of Our Manhood," got my juices flowing. After reading the article, I began a lengthy comment drawing parallels to my own life to contribute to the conversation. Too lengthy; I was writing a whole article, in a space meant for a couple of paragraphs. So, I shortened my footnote appropriately and ask you to indulge my introspection and analysis.

In my personal life, the Internet had become the time-stealer that television was 20 years ago. I believe that one of the larger benefits of moving to the farm is our limited Internet bandwidth. I have learned to be far more selective about content than when I had multi-megabit broadband cable.

Years ago, I chose to live without broadcast television because it subverts human interaction. With the TV playing, there is no need for communication and no room for growth. Everything comes in the bite-sized pre-chewed pap that characterizes more than 90% of video content across the board. Television is design to attract and entrance our predator's eve, with its movement and color. When faced with such shiny moving objects, I believe we are little better than cats with a laser pointer.

For me, if the TV is on when I walk through the room and I happen to look in its direction, I find my purpose compromised. I remember losing several days to mind-numbing entertainment (fishing shows! The Weather Channel!) in my 30's, when I had wanted to go work on my yard or car. The flashing video screen atracted my eye and sucked out my soul whenever we shared the room.

Even public television has been marred by a lack of depth and a pandering to their need for a slice of the audience. It isn't that I don't find British humor funny--I love Monty Python--or fail to see the benefit of programs like Nova. It's the mental Vermiculite that fills the time between programs that really inform me.

Disgusted with the lot, and with the premium I payed to receive drivel, I turned off cable. In the late fall and winter, when Northern nights are long, deep and dreary, we'll share movies, or watch the few series (Firefly, for example) that spark our interest, on DVD. Comes the Spring and Summer, the device gathers dust under its daily cloak.

So, my love affair with broadcast television ended, and I haven't looked back. When confronted with the TV at a relative's house or a restaurant, I find myself easily distracted and lured into its cocoon embrace. Like other addictions, I find avoidance one of the better solutions.

Which brings me to the Internet, and the topic of Brett McKay's article. I hadn't realized it until we moved to the farm, but I had become addicted to surfing the World Wide Web in nearly the same way that I earlier drooled before television. With the advent of Broadband access, with its near Local Area Network speeds, access to media heavy entertainment was too easy.

I spent evenings tied to the computer watching YouTube videos, or perusing Flash and image heavy sites. I sometimes downloaded large videos or games, watch/play them once, and leave them cluttering the hard drive. I'd simultaneously listen to a media stream on Pandora and download the latest development software from Microsoft while viewing funny cat photos.

We have a picture from this period, that our friend Sky took, of Aarene and I seated in our recliners each with a computer on our laps. We never--seriously--got to the point of using Internet Media Chat to speak to one another, but the same kind of interpersonal wall is there.

The Internet had become my jones.

Then we moved to the country. Out in rural Snohomish county, there is neither cable nor DSL. Your choices for accessing the Internet come in two flavors; dial-up or satellite. I opted to connect us to the world using satellite, so strong was my need, my earnest desire, for something--anything--that clipped along faster than a speeding slug.

We connect through at the blazing speeds of 200kpbs up-link and 1.0Mbps down-link through an 18" dish tacked to the side of the house. This is for the slightly more money than we paid the cable company for 8Mbps in each direction, and the speeds really are blazing compared to the 56kbps a modem brings. Additionally, there is a rolling 3GB over 30 day limit. This means that, counting backward from today, you may download 3GB of information; exceed that limit, and you're toast.

OK, that's probably an exaggeration. However, if you exceed the limit WildBlue limits you to modem speeds (56kbps, remember? Almost four time slower uploads and nearly 20 times slower downloads) until the aggregate total reaches 70% of your limit. In real terms for us, that has been about a week. Very painful, indeed.

What this has led me to, then, is the realization that my Internet habit had nearly gotten as bad as the old TV habit. However, I find that with age has come the wisdom to recognize and cope with the problem. Since I know that, for the forseeable future, we're tied to the satellite infrastructure, there's no point in using Skype or Pandora, and I can download movies and software patches at the Public Library--and maybe get a book while I'm there, too.

Between moving to the country and my prodigal son's return, my life and priorities changed. The reduced bandwidth made those changes accessible. By imposing a limit on my Internet access, I have freed more time to spend with people on things that matter.

These days, I spend more time building things. And reading. And talking with real people, like Aarene and Willy. I spend fruitful, contemplative time in the company of animals and pursuing hobbies that engage my mind and body.

The goats believe this is a good thing.

The chickens; not so much.

But then, they are chickens.


  1. And here's me, nodding and smiling at every single word.

  2. Hmmmmmm.

    I admit my hackles went up when I read the About page at AoM. I do not think feminism destroyed manliness - it's not a zero-sum game. But I'm not going to hold a grudge over that, so I read the Amusing Ourselves article with an open mind.

    My main problem with the article is that it puts days gone by on a pedestal. I hate that. People a hundred years ago weren't magically more intellectual just because they didn't have TV - I would strenuously argue that there were fewer intellectuals, because there was much less education and less free time to spend thinking weighty thoughts.. I can't believe that all of the attendees at the Lincoln/Douglas debates had nuanced and passionate opinions about the subjects discussed. Some percentage of them, sure, but the rest just came because it was a spectacle.

    Television runs lowest-common-denominator catchy bits of "entertainment news." So did newspapers, back in the day when they were the main source of information for the masses. Traveling lectures were popular because they were entertainment AND education.

    The internet is just the latest and most subtle tool we have for amusing ourselves. Advertisers and content providers have an unprecedented deep and creepy understanding of human psyche. But I refuse to believe humans have become stupider because TMZ gets a million hits a day.

  3. Thanks for this post. We abandoned broadcast TV for much the same reasons. Personally, I have absolutely no willpower over the TV and I get sucked in by very, very bad TV. Honestly, I was rushing home from work to watch America's Next Top Model!

    So the TV is just for DVDs now.

    But internet? Give it up? Gack, choke!

    You're right though. It can cause the same human-interaction-blockages and mind-numbing-zombification that TV can.

    You've given me something to think about.