Reviews

The Age of Missing Information

RICHARD VAN CAMP

If you read one book on the Information Age, make sure it's Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information (Penguin/Plume), which is a real page-turner of a long essay about What's Wrong with the Idea of Information. The device is neat: McKibben watched twenty-four hours' worth of TV in Fairfax, Virginia (it took him a year—you can get ninety-three channels in Fairfax), and then he spent twenty-four hours alone up one of the Adirondack mountains, recovering. Don't worry, he didn't come down off the mountain and declare Nature superior to TV. It's way more complicated than that. And it's more complicated than us being bombarded with images and fact-bytes, while we sit in a torpid state empty of body awareness (although that is part of it). McKibben gets right to the larger, moral problem: TV is a big, broad medium, so big that stories about, say, poverty and starvation have to be about whole classes of people rather than particular people, which causes them to "dramatically understate the idiosyncratic and inherent messiness of human lives." People's pain gets averaged out, or over-categorized, so we can have no genuine compassion for each other and we can make no solutions to each other's trouble. We are obsessed with "tolerance," but with TV's help we define it as universal personal freedom, rather than a politics in which we connect with each other, value each other's experience, need each other. McKibben is too smart to conclude simply that corporate America is brainwashing us so we'll buy more stuff (although that's part of it). He is more concerned with how we receive information and gain wisdom, how we come to "know." A Denver research firm found that people who watched the relentless TV coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf actually knew less about it than those who didn't. In fact the more they watched, the less they knew: 16 percent of light viewers, but 32 percent of heavy viewers, believed Kuwait was a democracy. TV offers information; this book offers understanding. Read it.

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RICHARD VAN CAMP

Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.


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