Letter 24: AOCYEUBY – A Failed Entertainment

Dear David,

At the beginning of my teaching career, I taught several Bible classes at a small parochial high school.  After attending a workshop at a convention, I taught a unit on the influence of the media.[1]  My goal was not to paint the media in terms of black and white or right and wrong, but rather to get my students to think critically about what they consume in terms of entertainment.  I wanted them to understand how powerful an influence media can be.  Your conversation with David Lipsky about what you were trying to accomplish through Infinite Jest reminded me of some of the lively class discussions we had during that media and entertainment unit.

You say, in describing Infinite Jest, that “the original title was A Failed Entertainment.  The idea is that the book is structured as an entertainment that doesn’t work… And the tension of the book is to try to make it at once extremely entertaining – and also sort of warped, and to sort of shake the reader awake about some of the things that are sinister in entertainment” (79).  You then go on to explain that the “sinister” element of entertainment – and specifically television – is how it seductively tries to “separate [us] from [our] cash somehow” (80).  The seduction happens through the allure of the entertaining shows we watch, while the separation from our money comes from the advertisers who sponsor the shows.

You go on to say “I think one of the reasons why I feel empty after watching a lot of TV, and one of the things that makes TV seductive, is that it gives the illusion of relationships with real people.  It’s a way of to have people in the room talking and being entertaining but it doesn’t require anything of me.  I mean I can see them, they can’t see me.  And, and, they’re there for me, and I can, I can receive from TV. I can receive entertainment and stimulation.  Without having to give anything back but the most tangible kind of attention.  And that is very seductive.

“The problem is it’s also very empty…

“And the thing, what the book is supposed to be about is, What has happened to us, that I’m now willing – and I do this too – that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television?  But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential sh** of dealing with other people.

“And that as the Internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up, like – I mean, you and I coulda done this through email, and I never woulda had to meet you, and that woulda been easier for me…  Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better.  And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.  Which is alright.  In low doses, right?  But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die.  In a meaningful way, you’re gonna die” (85-86).[2]

Rereading these passages first reminded me of your story “Little Expressionless Animals,” which seems to focus thematically around this idea of the illusion of intimacy created by television.  The entire ensemble cast of characters – all of whom are connected to the television industry – have the appearance of close relationships with each other, yet experience no real connection.[3]  In fact one of the characters whose name escapes me at the moment describes for another character whose name escapes me the lonely and disturbed people whose only sense of relationship is with the characters they see on television.

But what really jumped out at me was how prophetic that last paragraph is.[4]  As the technology has gotten better and better, the line between the illusion of television and the reality of the living room has become more and more blurred.  We can now email our questions to Larry King, we can follow Ashton Kutcher on Twitter, and we can vote for our favorite contestant on American Idol.  Television has become much more interactive, thereby perpetuating the illusion of intimacy with those we see on television.  For the briefest of moments, we appear to matter to those on the other side of the screen.

With the recent advent of social online media, the illusion becomes far more deceptive.  Now let me preface this by saying I am not about to jump into an anti-Facebook or anti-MySpace rant.  I have a Facebook account, with some 180 friends, that I check on a daily basis.[5]  So it’s not the technology itself that is bad – you yourself call it amoral – and I don’t know that the creators of such sites are being all that seductive or manipulative in their marketing and in the service they provide.[6]  The problem is, as you so keenly point out, that these technologies are taking the place of actual face-to-face interaction in real, live relationships.

I first broke down and joined Facebook about two years ago for the very simple reason of wanting to play online Scrabble with my wife and some friends.[7]   Since then, I have played – and lost – many Scrabble games, but also have reconnected with many old friends from high school and college.  It has provided an opportunity to get back in touch and remain in touch with people I have not seen in ten or fifteen years. It also allows me to keep in touch with former students as they graduate and head out into the real world.  I read their Status Updates; they read mine.  We make funny jokes about them, or offer words of encouragement when one of us is facing difficulties.

But your words got me thinking about the real-life relationships I have with these people.  Like I said, we haven’t seen each other – in some cases – in ten to fifteen years.  And many of them, we were not really that close to begin with.  But I was left wondering, what if we weren’t communicating through computer monitors and DSL connections?  What if we were actually to sit down for a meal or a cup of coffee?  How would that conversation go?  How much would we actually have to talk about?[8]

My worry is not so much for myself because I – and many others like me – use these online tools to perpetuate pre-existing relationships.  I (we) take advantage of the convenience of keeping tabs on old friends and new through an all-in-one social media outlet.  What I worry about is the impact these tools will have (are having?) on the creating and sustaining of relationships.  It’s amazing how personal of information people will reveal about themselves with virtual strangers.  Typing words into a keyboard and watching them appear on a screen gives a sense of validation to those words and the feelings behind them, but it also removes the shame and embarrassment of having to say them to a real person and watching him respond to them.  It creates a very illusory sense of intimacy between individuals.

I was talking to my older brother – who is also an English teacher – about a couple of documentary films that highlight the fact that today’s youth are growing up in a world in which the memory of life without cell phones and the Internet and Facebook are quickly fading away.  Young people only know a world of these social technologies.  Social media is the platform for relationships.  They form relationships, often very personal and intimate ones, with complete strangers through Facebook or MySpace or Twitter.  I recently heard that one in five dating relationships begin online.[9]  Individuals are just as open – and sometimes more so – with people they have never actually met as they are with people they live with.  This false sense of intimacy created through social media is just as “real” as true intimacy created through actually spending time talking and interacting with another person while in the same room. 

If these sort of synthetic relationships do actually take the place of real face-to-face relationships, I fear what the consequences will be.  You speak of this illusion of intimacy leading to a sort of death.  I fear we are heading down that path, and I fear what that death will mean not just for individuals but for our greater society as well.

[1] Those lesson plans eventually turned into a student workbook, which eventually – thanks to the generosity of some of my students’ parents – was published in book form through a self-publishing house. 

[2] My apologies for the lengthy quote, but it’s all so good and so true and would have been too difficult to sum up quickly.

[3] I won’t go into great detail here, since doing so would probably end up just being a paraphrase of my Letter focusing on that story.

[4] I realize that in the twelve years between this interview and your death that you were able to see some of how true your words would become.  But even in the two years since then, social media has exploded probably beyond even what you could foresee.

[5] Although, I never did have a MySpace page.  I will admit that I felt myself too good for that.

[6] I guess it is possible, however, that they are so manipulative and seductive that I, the critical observer, am not even aware of how manipulative and seductive they are being.

[7] But it wasn’t really Scrabble.  It was some wannabe, knock-off version of it that got pulled from Facebook after a couple of months, but was later replaced by the real Scrabble not too long afterward.  I guess the makers of the real Scrabble caught wind of the wannabe, knock-off version, and had a few choice things to say about it to the creators of Facebook, resulting in the removal of said wannabe, knock-off version and replacement with the real, authorized version.

[8] In some cases I can imagine a painfully awkward silence reminiscent of the Friends episode in which Ross invites Phoebe’s fiancé over for pizza and beers to better get to know each other.  It isn’t long before topics of conversation have run dry and they are consulting a dictionary to find the etymological difference between a beer and a lager.

[9] I am very curious what sort of impact this will have on divorce rates in the future.  Will relying on carefully constructed computer programs to match up couples help those couples stay together?  Sounds like a good one for the Freakonomics guys.


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