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The Age of Missing Information by Bill McKibben. Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York NY, 1993; 261 pp., $11.95 (paper). Reviewed by Jordan S. Gruber.
Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Difficulty Level: 7 (out of 10)
Recommendation: Buy it: a very stimulating, worthwhile, book.
Imagine a day hundreds, or even thousands, of hours long. Then imagine, if you will, spending that entire day watching television. For Bill McKibben, that day was May 3rd, 1990, a day on which the Fairfax Virginia cable system offered roughly 2,000 hours worth of programming on 93 channels. McKibben managed to collect this material, and then he watched it--all of it. "I spent eight-hour days for many months watching cartoons and soap operas and shopping channels and televangelists, with predictable mood-altering effect. I'll never do anything quite so daft again."
McKibben also spent a full 24 hours on a small mountain near his Adirondack's home in order to see what information was missing, to see what the mountain had to say that television just couldn't. The mountain, alive with creatures, plants, and cycles of interactivity, spoke deeply to McKibben. His poised and provocative memoir arises from the comparison of these two "information spaces," the virtual reality of television and the actual reality of nature directly experienced. (Pssst! Hey you! Yeah, you. Have you tried this great new thing yet? It's called actual reality, and it's really amazing!) McKibben concludes that:
We believe that we live in the "age of information," that there has been an information "explosion," an information "revolution." While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.
Although television has inspired nearly endless commentary, McKibben's contribution is unique precisely because he was willing to subject himself to such a strange experiment. Many of his conclusions, however, are familiar - he resonates strongly with deep ecology and he clearly believes that most people watch far too much television - and his position is arguably ultimately simplistic since we are necessarily creatures of our time, and our time is one of expanding media, not the least of which is television. Some of McKibben's insights, however, are refreshingly original. For example, the constant rebroadcasting of so many 1960s suburban sitcoms (McKibben has special relish for the Brady Bunch) serves to reinforce the notion that our typical, excessively consumptive, lifestyle is, well, obviously normal and to be expected.
McKibben writes well, and his off-again, on-again stream of consciousness style serves to accentuate the absurdity of the vast amount of material to which he exposed himself. To be fair, television does have some "good" content, and McKibben praises that which deserves praise (especially Jacques Cousteau). But television's overwhelming thrust is apparently not a high-minded one, and McKibben's opinion as to our collective fascination with the "tube" is made perfectly clear.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the book is often fun to read, especially those parts where he is referring to Flipper and The Brady Bunch and McHale's Navy. I am embarrassed to say that I began looking forward to those incestuously interlocking references, to that unreal world that filled so many of my childhood hours, to that dreamy space where Samantha and Jeannie and Gomez and Johnny Quest, not to mention Gilligan and the Skipper and all the rest, all fold into one seamless electronic cogweb. In short, those of us who watched (or who still watch) many, many hours of television were (or are), for better or worse, programmed by that material, and it is thoughtful books like McKibben's that may help us to recognize the long-term effects of that programming.
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