The world is changing. Faster than any of us can track. And one of the ways it is changing is to make us far more accurate at assessing the multiple sources of information demanding our attention every day.
We have to be more accurate. We have to be more selective. If not, we would be swamped with a time-wasting, distracting, confusing barrage of information, and we would go to sleep at night wondering what the hell that was all about.
(Well, okay, sometimes I go to sleep at night wondering what the hell that was all about anyway, but usually there is a specific cause -- say, I happened to land on Fox News for too long before clicking the TV off. It's not a general state of mind...)
We've learned to be choosy about what we let into our heads.
One reason we've had to do this is that our culture is becoming an audiovisual one -- instead of one based on the written word.
This is somewhat threatening to those of us who value the old culture -- those of us who still read for pleasure. An article in the New Yorker last week terrified me on this topic of our changing culture.
The article, Twilight of the Books, discusses the rise of a post-literate culture -- a so-called "secondary orality." The author, Caleb Crain, lists some of the findings of research into the ways in which an oral culture -- one without reliance on the written word -- functions. These findings happen to match up almost exactly with our emerging 21st century culture in the U.S.
Here's the most hair-raising passage from the article:
"[T]he best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to 'think memorable thoughts,' whose zing insures their transmission. In an oral culture, cliche and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There's no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling and in 'enthusiastic description of physical violence.' Since there's no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted...[I]t is only in a literate culture that the past's inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth."
Doesn't that describe our current political and popular cultures with eerie accuracy?
I brooded about this for a week, until I realized that this culture of "secondary orality" will generate new skills, new adaptive behaviors, new talents, in the coming years. My children will have abilities far beyond mine to selectively choose what goes into their heads, and what new synthesis they make of it all.
And that brings me to the youth vote.
As is becoming increasingly apparent from the floundering of Clinton and Romney, young people don't buy the old schtick of politicians. When they start with the rhetoric, or dwell too long on their resumes, young people turn their attention away. This is the secret behind the popularity of the satire on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or the Colbert Report, or the Onion. The old written-word style of communication, mimicked by habit even in the speech of older politicians, has become a joke.
Elevated language, and the unreflective role playing that goes along with it (message: "I speak in this self-important manner because I am an important leader of men!"), simply don't translate well into an audiovisual culture.
This is why Obama and Huckabee have a special magic for young people. They may be readers themselves, but they belong -- in every syllable they utter, in every casual, natural smile they flash -- to the new culture. They are authentic, finite, recognizable. And most importantly, they are hearable and watchable.