Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on November 10, 2008


typewriter6          You know, when you stop to think about it, we live in a very strange world.  It’s a world where our GPS systems ensure that we will never again be lost, where we can be contacted at any place at any time via our Blackberry, and where I know exactly what my friends are doing at any given moment because they Twitter the most minute details of their life to their Facebook profile.  In short, we live in a world that has been shrunken tremendously by technology, and for the most part, I feel this is a good thing.  Now, with a title like “Television vs. The Good Earth,” I suppose this lesson could have been about any number of things – from the Real World / Road Rules Challenge to Pearl S. Buck – or I could have come out of the box a guns-a-blazing luddite, who, like Chazz Michael Michaels, accuses you all of spending too much time on the Google Machine, but…that’s not me.  You see, when teaching Thoreau, I’ve always found his sentences to be beautiful, but his advice to be impractical; and I pretty much think that the kid from Into the Wild was an idiot.  Like it or not, we live in the twenty-first century, and an international businessman who insists on traversing the Atlantic Ocean via Viking Ship á la Eric the Red will probably not be nearly as successful as his counterpart who takes the seven-hour flight from Heathrow to La Guardia via Virgin Airlines.  Nevertheless, it’s important to emphasize the necessity of occasionally unplugging from our harried lives and communing with nature, and that’s what today’s lesson is all about.

          Recently, one of my readers sent me a clip that highlights the fact that the average college student spends nearly four hours a day online.  That’s certainly an enormous amount of time, but when you add in the two hours a day we spend listening to our iPod and the five hours a day we spend watching television, the aggregate portion of our day in which we are plugged into the digital world is simply staggering.  Now, I’m as guilty of this crime of interconnectivity as the next guy, but I sometimes stop to wonder about the long-term consequences of this reality.  Last summer, I read an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Is Google Making us Stoopid?,” wherein the author posits that our extremely malleable brains are being rewired by the amount of time that we are spending on the internet.  Apparently, our brains used to be configured to more easily process detailed and lengthy deep arguments, but have recently begun adapting to a shallower hyper-linked reality, wherein we can make lateral jumps more quickly but have lost the ability to focus for extended periods of time.  My question is this: is it possible that a similar remapping of our synapses is occurring due to the prevalence of television?  Allow me to explain.

          As anyone who has read Dr. Wizard’s Advice to this point realizes, my understanding of the world draws deeply upon popular culture.  From shows like The Office and Entourage, I extrapolate metaphors and apply them to the lives of college students – much like Chuck Klosterman is able to speak of his relationships only in the vernacular of K.I.S.S. albums.  But I find myself asking whether or not it is unusual that I see my own life and emotions paralleled so transparently in Arrested Development and Weeds?  Perhaps some may see this as being strange, but, in all actuality, I think the answer is in fact “No, it’s not all that abnormal.”  For all of society’s semi-joking explorations into the constitution of reality, and The Matrix is a perfect example of this strange preoccupation, most of us now freely reflect our own feelings against the digitally delivered medium of television.  In essence, we have chosen to construct our own Matrix, and to live both inside and outside of our construction.  I don’t, in fact, think it’s all that unusual that Rescue Me gives me a frame of reference for understanding my own failed relationships, or that I cry every time I watch The Gridiron Gang.  This may seem ridiculous (after all, the latter stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), but there’s something in Rescue Me that feels like my divorce, and there’s something in The Gridiron Gang that appeals to both my inner teacher and my deep desire to reconnect the nuclear family in America (even if that reconstituted twenty-first-century nuclear family can now include two dads or two moms).  The bottom line is that television helps us understand the world.

          Still, there are dangers in spending too much of our lives wrapped up in the world of cyberspace, or in experiencing too many emotions via the proxy-server of pre-written programming.   For while our brains are quickly adapting to the new reality of a digital age, our bodies and our hearts are experiencing a much slower evolution.  And though it is amazing to know at any given moment that my friend Jeremy Coffman just finished shooting a French Mentos commercial (he’s like Paris’s version of Vinnie Chase – only gayer), or that Katie Gordon has just finished getting the kids ready for bed, even in the midst of all this information it is completely possible to experience a sense of spiritual isolation.

          So how do we avoid this isolation?  Well, when I talk about experiencing “The Good Earth,” I’m not referring explicitly to rock-climbing and mountain-biking.  This is not a lesson in the strictest sense about the benefits of exercise – because #34 will tackle that concept in great detail.  Rather, this is a mandate for all of us, including you, the college students of America, to commune more closely with Nature – to leave behind, if only for a few hours each week, the digital world, and to spend a few quiet moments reflecting upon life in the great outdoors.  Unless we do this, we run the risk of finding ourselves incarcerated in a prison of our own making.  “Nature,” according to Emerson, “is meant to conspire with the Spirit to emancipate us.”  As such, “the happiest man is he who learns from Nature the lesson of worship.  It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead the individual back to it.”  So, in essence, this lesson is a bridge.  It connects the importance of Keeping the Faith with that of Visiting the Gymnasium.  Sometimes kids, as silly as this metaphor sounds, it is necessary to leave our Blackberry on the table, and to go pick some blackberries in the forest.  We will live healthier lives if we make this commitment, and we will be more capable of finding peace in the midst of frenzy if we balance our watching of Weeds with a few hours spent pulling weeds out in Mom’s garden – or at least a few hours smoking weed on her back porch once she and Dad have gone to bed for the night.

          Note: Speaking of Weeds, check out the 1991 video of Romany Malco’s rap group, The College Boyz, performing their hit “Victim of the Ghetto,” at the Dr. Wizard Facebook Group page.

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. MS said, on November 10, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    I’ll admit, I was worried when I read the maple syrup post – I saw a vision of the end times (of Dr. Wizard’s blog that is). But then I got to thinking, what would Johnny Drama say? And you know what, he’d insist, “Nobody appreciates their girlfriend until they get herpes from the next broad. Know what I’m sayin’?” Yes Johnny Drama, I’m picking up what you’re putting down. What you’re saying is that the Wiz is not just a pop-culture guru who can sell the kids advice they’ll actually buy, but he’s an Ad wizard as well. He knew in his heart of hearts that we were getting used to the subtle hilarity that is “Embrace Diversity (Or, the Old, Old Wooden Ship)” so he decided to write “Your H.S. Sweetheart (part deux)” to make sure we weren’t getting complacent. Wiz, you sneaky Muhammad Ali son-of-a-bitch. You executed the rope-a-dope and then hit us with Foreman’s right cross: “Television vs. the Good Earth.”

    If Dr. Wizard is out of touch with the average American undergraduate, then I’m the Lord Chancellor of Songino Kairkhan, the 8th düüreg of Ulan Bator. This post provides the best intellectual high since AHWOSG or that dime of Northern Lights my Victorian Lit. professor gave me back in 2000. Come to think of it, my consumption of both occurred around the same time… Either way, “Coin-Operated Laundry,” you’ve been dethroned. In the immortal words of Johnny Drama, which conclude each episode of Viking Quest, Victory!

  2. Laura said, on November 11, 2008 at 3:56 am

    I am very glad to know someone else uses popular culture and especially television, for something other than escapism. As an avid watcher of The Wire, I often feel like I have learned more from that show about the reality of the world than I have from my classes. (At least it defiantly confirmed my leaving the political science major.)

    I do agree with your advice to leave the technology behind every once and a while. This lesson reminded me of an article I read in Adbusters recently. ( The author wrote about his decision to quit Facebook and I found it rather inspiring. He notes that we spend so much time on these sites that claim to be fostering a sense of community, when in reality they are just platforms for us to “self-obsess and present particularly uninteresting and repetitive images of ourselves.” We begin to worry more about how we come off on Facebook instead of how we come off in real life.

    I have thought about deleting my Facebook on many occasions but I have never brought myself to do it. In some ways it is kind of sad, because I don’t need it, people have functioned without it for many many years. Yet it is such a part of the culture of collegiate life, it feels as though if I were to cut myself out of Facebook, I would be cutting myself out the university completely. And isn’t that ridiculous? I don’t even consider myself and an “average” college student and I feel somewhat removed from the dominant culture here, yet I still couldn’t bear to do. It is almost kind of creepy if you think about it.

    p.s. I recently discovered your blog and I really do enjoy these Lessons. I find your writing amusing and your taste in television shows excellent.

  3. Jonesin' For a Collegiate Fix said, on November 11, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Well, it’s good to hear that Jeremy Coffman is still as strange as ever. My favorite J-Coff story is from his 11th year on this planet (I’m pretty sure he believes he’s lived other lives in other places in our solar system). He had just finished watching ‘Mary Poppins’ for the 5632887564112334468 time. While he sang “Spoonful of Sugar” and danced like a damn chimney sweeper all the time, his favorite part of the whimsical film was that kids (and Mary) could fly using umbrellas. Granted, this concept is pretty awesome to a pre-adolescent but Jeremy took it a little too far. He scaled his parent’s roof (no small feat for someone as incredibly unathletic as J-Coff), opened his dad’s golf umbrella and jumped/plummeted fifteen feet to the ground. Insane, right? He really thought he was going to be able to fly. I know he truly believed as such because I asked him repeatedly as I signed the cast on his broken arm with the signatures of the ‘Saved by the Bell’ cast. Weird dude…no wonder he always wanted us to call him “The Freshmaker.”

  4. MS said, on November 11, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    First off fellow commenters, Happy Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday, or Armistice Day, whichever.

    Good comment. I only recently joined the facebook revolution because Dr. Wizard launched a group that has super-secret links to posts that haven’t been revealed here yet. I avoided it for many of the reasons you post above, though I find that it is a really interesting networking tool. You write: “We begin to worry more about how we come off on Facebook instead of how we come off in real life.” Which was my initial fear. But isn’t facebook part of real life? We are often ‘plugged in’ as Wiz describes it, but does that mean that listening to an iPod is ‘unplugs’ you from reality? I don’t think so. Surely we need to get out there and do things, but what is ‘real’ is the fact that I am not Chuck Bass. What does this mean? Essentially, my life is not as interesting, dramatic, or privileged as the characters on a show like Gossip Girl or Rescue Me or even, sadly, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But those shows do provide cathartic moments, or flashes of insight (like The Wire for you). As we alter reality, reality alters us; and I’m okay with going along for the ride. Especially when I’m out having drinks with my buddies and a debate about Charlie Day’s role in A Christmas Story needs debunking, which can now be done because of the iPhone. The sad reality is that now that we have everything in the palm of our hands we’ll never be looking for the heart of Saturday night again, but we’ll always be able to listen to it, no matter where we are.

  5. funktifiedacoustic said, on November 11, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    MS –
    ‘Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin’

    Which of your arms is that one on again?

  6. CS said, on November 11, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    MS is totally right – mobile technology has made the random-bar-trivia game that much easier. But lest you think Google has turned my brain to mush, I was able to name the lead in “A Christmas Story” without blinking an eye (it was Peter Billingsley). And yet I lost a dollar last night when I argued that Cambodia and Kampuchea were not the same place. My point? With or without Google, my brain will always hold much, much more pop-culture uselessness than any real-world knowledge.

    To wit: funktifiedacoustic (and MS), nice Tom Waits reference.

  7. UVA Mike said, on November 11, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Wiz, I’ve got to say that I’m completely torn on what to do with my comment for this post. Part of me wants to applaud you for an awesome lesson, the other part wants to make incessant Rock jokes. So, I’ll compromise. Nice work, and “Do you smell what The Wiz is cooking?”

  8. MS said, on November 12, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    It’s actually not on my arm, but Black Sail in the Sunset (Elvis Costello b-side) is on the right arm. And by right I mean both starboard and correct.

  9. MS said, on November 12, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Too bad I forgot how to proofread and mistakenly made ‘sails’ singular.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: