Nightlights And Imagination

Copyright © by Len Holman, 12/18/10


  When I was a kid, I had a radio by my bed. No, not an iPod or a smart phone, I mean a REAL radio which only got AM programs, and out of which poured the culture of the times, from songs and singers to dramas, comedy shows, crime shows, superhero exploits and spooky melodramas which chilled me and made me cover my head with the blankets. I was supposed to be going to sleep, but instead I turned on my old radio, and waited impatiently for the tubes to warm up, waiting for that glow from it to throw golden light across my dark room—a nightlight against the dreads of the night.  I would cuddle up near it, the sound turned down so my parents wouldn’t know I was breaking the rules, and listen intently to my favorite shows.  Those programs called out to my imagination, and the pictures which my mind conjured were colored and three-dimensional and as real as anything a six year-old could want.  I produced the images, and the radio gave me visual reality, helped by sound effects, helped by the intonation and pitch of the actors.  In those far-away days, people had to picture the action, and each of us listening could see the story and become immersed in it.

  Today, our stories are told to us in graphic detail so that—no matter how clever, how intricate the images—there is no need for the imagination to add anything, no need to “fill in” the blanks.  There ARE no blanks.  Sound effects are just sound, not added to help the mind construct a picture or run a movie inside one’s head, but just added because the software on our brightly-lit electronic gadgets CAN add them.  The beeps and buzzes contribute nothing but noise—and noise is the hallmark of modern society.  When my daughter first came to visit me out in the high desert, she complained of not being able to sleep because “it was too quiet.”  Movies today have more car crashes, airplane disasters, monsters crushing cities—more NOISE than troops in WWI encountered in those hellish trenches. But it’s the pictures which bother, it’s the graphic detail of our entertainment which causes one to pause. With so much NOT left to imagination, what happens now to the human mind?  This is not to lament the “good old days” when black people had to sit at the back of the bus and gay people had to lock themselves in the closet and women had to lock themselves in the kitchen, baking cookies with Betty Crocker. What I AM lamenting is the lack of picture-making the human mind is now forced to endure, to inform itself, to vivify the world the mind inhabits.  It’s no doubt true that with every stage of technology, there were those who claimed the End of Humanity:  From memorizing everything to writing on papyrus and vellum.  From walking to school to riding in a Tin Lizzy.  From  hunting for your supper to taking the Hummer out to the burger joint or being in your own kitchen heating a pizza which came in a box.  At each stage there were those who claimed the imminent diminution of humans—from lack of memory and the weakening of the brain, to atrophied muscles from riding instead of walking, to poor health, debilitating illnesses and premature death from eating too many chemicals.  Through it all, the mind has remained that one essential of human beings which was not even considered to be disappearing, but rather to be in desperate need of strengthening or training or redirecting—or all of those.  Now…well, now we have a situation.

  Even in the transition from pure memory to archiving memory in writing, the mind was to be a major player.  It had to decipher, encode, find relevance, re-arrange—it had to do a lot of work and no one thought it would atrophy and vanish.  But today we have a punctuated equilibrium of technology, a gigantic spurt which started several decades ago and is speeding up as time passes.  We already can speak to our computers and have it do what we wish. We ask machines for directions.  We use computer-generated images in movies to substitute for plot and character delineation.  In short, we are using technology to do what the mind has traditionally done, what the mind has evolved to do: negotiate humans through their environment and make that cozy nighttime encounter in the cave a pleasant gene-passing experience.  If the mind makes relevance, mediates our sensory experience, creates reality well enough to get us from cradle to grave by way of preschool, the workplace, and the nursing home, what—in the not-so-distant-future, will the mind have to do if we don’t use it or need it anymore?

  This is not a screed against the evil machines, a la “Terminator.”  It IS a plea to stop and consider the ramifications of sidelining the function of mind to that of the appendix.  If, generation after generation, people stop thinking, dreaming, imagining, creating mental images, they will soon find substitutes in the tech world and those substitutes will be realer than real—hyperreal, as Baudrillard had it, and realer than real is better for young minds to deal with because these minds haven’t ever been worked, haven’t had to conjure anything that was already presented to them.  Once we’ve raised a whole generation weaned and nourished on graphics, including books on screen, we’re liable to see some interesting developments.

  If minds no longer function to create an interface between what might be, what COULD be, and what we experience, then minds will be superfluous and leave plenty of room for filling by garbage.  Yes, there will be those minds which will create the stuff the rest of us will use in place of mind-relevance, but the vast majority of us will be the Morlocks, or some unwitting subjects in a fantasy where machine will provide our senses with what the mind used to.  Already we can plainly see that the public mind is overwhelmed and undermanned by the demands of modern life and by the manipulators of information because we cannot think, evaluate, imagine, counter-factualize, suppose, or analyze.  Our minds are Terri Schiavo’s mind, and though her parents KNEW she was responding, the doctors knew better, as the autopsy showed.  We think we think, but we have a graphically-saturated mind which allows no room for all that. If you read any school mission statement, you’ll find—somewhere in that vacuous statement—something about “developing critical thinkers,” which, in our culture, has come to mean deciding which video game is cooler, which size implant to get, which liar to vote for, which new toy, food, dress to get.  Public debates are a joke, except to the special interests which will benefit from our tax dollars. The mind I, and all the other kids snuggled around their nightlights, constantly had to use, was a well-developed imagination machine, able to “see” what wasn’t there, to interpret the sound of a window opening, immediately followed by the sound of wind chimes, as a breeze blowing in. Try asking a young person (someone under 30 or so) for directions to his or her house, then be prepared for an agonizing session of hemming and hawing as she tries to do that.  That agony is a product of a mind turned to mush, an underworked mind, a mind coddled by our graphic, every-detail-explained society.  If we don’t find a way to make minds relevant for everyone, we will find them irrelevant for all but the Chosen Few, the Eloi, and these people will have money and privilege and will make damn sure the minds of their children stay muscled and supple.  Damn, I miss that radio!


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