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The Triumph Of The Trivial

John Winters: We live in a society where mass communication has become democratized to the point of meaninglessness. (All photos/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
John Winters: We live in a society where mass communication has become democratized to the point of meaninglessness. (All photos/AP)

At year’s end, as I began writing this, there were a dozen good-sized wars raging, a teetering national health care initiative, an out-of-control national debt, historic gridlock in Washington and rising rates of poverty and homelessness.

Yet, a gay-bashing duck call salesmen had commandeered the nation’s interest.

In the text-friendly parlance of the day, WTF?

In the end it is not a nuclear warhead or terrorist attack that will take us down. It’s the trivial. Swamped by celebrity gossip, friends’ posts about trips to the mall, Rob Ford videos, emails about Obama’s “real birthplace,” baby photos, Miley Cyrus updates, texts, Tweets and trolls, we’ve become willfully detached from reality. It’s as if our minds refuse to deal with anything more serious than the latest story on UpWorthy.

The world is crazy, we reason, so let us put our minds in neutral and read another list about the best movie quotes from the 1970s on Buzzfeed.

This month, the fifth season of “Duck Dynasty” began and stories containing plot summaries and projected ratings proliferated once again, all citing last month's controversy. Meanwhile, when that story first broke, it wasn’t the only buffoonery clogging our media channels. Television and the Web were also seething with clips of Fox News anchors decrying the so-called war against Christmas and refuting claims made by some that ol’ St. Nick may not be white (those damn, Santa-hating liberals!). Jon Stewart aptly addressed this nonsense: “Who gives a $#!%?”

The problem is we do give a $#!%. And that’s troubling.

Studies show that technology changes how we engage with the world and even the ways we think. As our lives moved into the digital realm and gadgets became our new appendages, it should have come as no surprise that we’d become addicted to the stream of trivia that flowed endlessly into our brains. And why not? It’s so much easier to contemplate a pop tart’s naughty parts than to think about why the Affordable Care Act is stumbling, why we allow congressional redistricting that guarantees legislative stalemates, or why when more than half the country thinks certain people shouldn’t have access to guns Congress does nothing to stop them. The world is crazy, we reason, so let us put our minds in neutral and read another list about the best movie quotes from the 1970s on Buzzfeed.

How did this happen? We used to be smart, on the ball, with IQs soaring. I posed this query to a teenaged relative of mine who recently had his eyes and thumbs surgically removed from his iPhone. Not surprisingly, he just shrugged.

To me, it all comes down to that dirty little word, content. If your idea of content is “good stuff free,” clearly you’ve spent way too much time reading Kim Kardashian’s blog (brought to you this week by Sears, the new Hercules movie, ShoeDazzle, the E! Network, Spin Entertainment, Dish and her own signature fragrance). In other words, if you think content is anything less than an adjunct of advertising, I have a bridge to sell you (for details, log on to www.buyjohnsbridge.com).

Here’s my take: The proliferation of media in recent years meant a corresponding jump in the amount of content. It began in earnest with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle in the 1990s. Add to this an explosion of cable channels, the subsequent development of the Internet and millions of websites, and now social media where everyone is a broadcaster and the star of his or her own show, and what you have is an endless parade of digital detritus.

Mix in ample doses of our celebrity obsession and rancorous partisan politics, where even a story about a snowstorm results in hours of pabulum from yammering talking heads, and the insignificant fodder, a.k.a. content, would seem to be endless.

Recently I’ve learned of the deaths of family members via online posts. How impersonal. I wondered whether I should give death a thumbs-up, or just add another “sorry for your loss” comment and then click back to Gawkr.

The result is that our lives have been given over to the inconsequential. The danger is that this devaluating effect taints important matters. It reduces friendships to shallow Facebook postings, birthday greetings to texts, and the most critical news of the day to tweets. I know I sound like a crank, but recently I’ve learned of the deaths of family members via online posts. How impersonal. I wondered whether I should give death a thumbs-up, or just add another “sorry for your loss” comment and then click back to Gawkr.

We live in a society where mass communication has become democratized to the point of meaninglessness. Considering the millions of articles, posts, “likes,” and comments that fly through cyberspace any given second, one might get the impression that we are a nation of individuals with lots of important things to say. We aren’t. Thanks to our runaway media and constantly proliferating social media sites, we are drowning in the flotsam and jetsam of people, places and events that exist to us only on ever-shrinking screens.

Fun and harmless, you say? Sure, until the next (pick one) terrorist attack, economic meltdown, civil rights rollback or unnecessary declaration of war catches us with our virtual pants down. Until then, we’ll just continue to hit the thumbs-up icon, circulate videos about twerking pop stars, and spread our neo-illiteracy 140 characters at a time.

John Winters Cognoscenti contributor
John Winters is a Massachusetts native who works and teaches at Bridgewater State University. He is the author of the new biography, "Sam Shepard: A Life." He can be reached via johnjwinters.com.

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