Mindless Consumption and the Media


The electronic news media has been suffering a continuing decline for some time. A typical half-hour show has only about fifty percent news (if it can be called that) and the rest is advertising. I tend to watch the ABC national news whenever I turn on the TV around dinner time. I haven’t taken a stopwatch to time each segment, but I estimate that there is less than 15 minutes of good hard news. There are nightly specials, like “Made in America” or “Real Money” and a few others that I cannot name even after watching them. These are followed by two or three spots under the rubric of “Instant Index” which name says nothing about what is to follow. This is devoted to all sorts of oddities that are often entertaining, but rarely newsworthy. I can’t even remember what was included tonight.

I am particularly disgusted by the “Real Money” segments. Tonight, it was all about how to make money by selling the clutter that has accumulated in peoples’ houses. Featured was a house so cluttered that the garage couldn’t be used for its normal purpose, to park the cars (usually 2). ABC provided a clutter-removal specialist to assist the overwhelmed couple. She pointed to all sorts of apps that could help them put prices on all the stuff, including many items that had never been used. The real story here is not about removing the clutter but asking how it got there in the first place.

I know that this family is not atypical. many, many garages are similarly packed to the gills with stuff and in many cases even this is inadequate. The overflow goes into a self=storage cubicle. I remembered that I had written a post about this quite a long time ago (September 10, 2009) , but went back to see what it said. Pretty remarkable and a real indictment of our profligate consumption behavior.

“A lot of the expansion we experienced as an industry was people choosing to store,” Litton told me. A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.

Back to the topic of this blog-the mindless media. I apologize to educational programming but it touches only those already generally in the know. I know that mainstream electronic media are primarily designed to be entertainment, but we can get more of that than we could possibly absorb from the rest of the shows. Democracy is struggling these days and this is part of the cause. Social thinkers going back to our Founding Fathers and perhaps even to the Greek philosophers have argued that democracy requires, not just benefits from, an educated public. Not just educated in the sense of understanding the foundations of government, but capable of thinking critically, that is, sorting the wheat from the chaff so prevalent in political rhetoric.

Couple this to the deterioration of public education, an institution that John Dewey singled out as an essential thread in the democratic fabric, and you get the disaster that has come and is coming in spades. We are teaching our young more and more subjects aimed at making them employees in this knowledge (a lot of irony here) economy, but providing less and less capability to be citizens. This loss of discernment is serious by itself, but even more so in the noisy, persuasive context of the media I am writing about. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of our culture is the drive for goods, especially mobile devices, but also things like sneakers. Peer pressure has always been a strong motivator of consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is an old American habit. The piece on the TV news tonight only begins to show the folly of this behavior. Sure with an uncluttering professional, one can recoup perhaps a fraction of what was originally spent on all that stuff. This is a very different pattern from the ubiquitous yard sale which tends to offer clutter to the public, but mostly old and outdated items, not cameras still in the original packaging.

To end tonight, here’s a footnote about stuff. My wife handed me a story about life in India’s slums that she got as an adjunct to her book club’s choice of a novel about such life. I found the numbers staggering. (Almost any number about India tends to be staggering.) The article reports that there are 670 million mobile phones in India at the end of this last summer. Pretty good penetration in a country of around a billion. But then it noted that there are about the same number of people who lack access to toilets and are forced to defecate in the open or fight for a turn at the few scattered public latrines. Granted that mobile phones have made a large contribution to the poor, there still is something wrong here.