Review: The Age of Missing Information

In his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben seeks answers to what constitutes real information in our age of increasingly accessible images, print, audio, and video.  He watched all that cable TV had to offer in a 24-hour span, comparing the sedentary experience to 24-hours in an unfettered natural place, a mountaintop overlooking his home in the Champlain Valley of upstate New York.

Of course, now its 2012, and the information that is published and created through the internet is a gazillion times more overwhelming than cable TV in 1992, but the lessons from the book still apply.  Perhaps they apply even more.

McKibben points out several problems with constant, uncritical media consumption: degeneration of fundamental skills, the fostering of a skewed view of history, the gospel of economic growth, and a destructive misunderstanding of humanity’s place in the universe.

Largely due to the constant leisure and distraction that media affords us, fundamental skills are pushed aside.  By fundamental skills, McKibben means an understanding and ability of how to grow or hunt food, build things, and many other skills mastered over long apprenticeships.  Think about what you would have to know and do if you wanted to make a hamburger one hundred years ago.  Hypothetically, you might have to know how to build a barn, raise a cow, feed it, care for it, butcher it, and so on and so forth. 

In the modern age, leisure and convenience inundates and shelter us from the process and necessary skills to do just about anything related to survival.  The more we are detached from fundamental skills, the more we are removed from the production of vitally important things, leading to general apathy or implicit support for industrial means.  Perhaps no industry wants to blind us from production more than agribusiness. 

I find pleasure in practicing fundamental skills, and its nice to know where things come from.  So I huntI cook.  I recently started brewing beer.  I try to renovate my house.  I like to build fires in the fire pit in my backyard.  I like to grow things.  Just because we don’t have to do these things, doesn’t mean we should write them off in favor of leisure and convenience.  As McKibben states, in our modern economy “money supplants skill; its possession allows us to become happily stupid.”  Strong words, but true to a large degree.

With regards to history, it repeats itself over and over again in the TV era.  McKibben writes, “The brightness surrounding the last forty years blinds us to all that preceded it—and forty years is a very short, even to an individual.”  Famous images captured by video get regurgitated over and over on anniversary dates and at other times. 

Understanding history in depth requires one to read, to talk to people, to do more than seeing reruns of the man standing in front of the tank in Tihanamen Square, the Berlin Wall crumbling, Martin Luther King’s Speech, grainy video of Kennedy’s assassination, or The Beatles delighting screaming and squealing teenagers on the Ed Sullivan show.  The internet, admittedly, offers us amazing archives and resources regarding history, but the casual consumer doesn’t go out of his or her way to understand a more in-depth view of history.  I wonder if McKibben would rephrase his theory with regards of the potential to explore history though the internet.

The gospel of consumerism and non-stop economic growth is the highest goal of our country, and it’s still a heretical view to proclaim that economic growth is an unworthy goal. “People acquire more money, and buy more things with it, and the economy grows, creating more jobs and more prosperity, and so has been since at least the Industrial Revolution,” McKibben writes about the explicit and implicit messages in TV.   Think about the messages we receive on TV about economic news.  I’ve never heard a single political or economic “authority” state, well, we shouldn’t be talking about economic growth anymore, because if people in expanding global economies lived like us, there will be nothing left on earth.  TV and media reinforce the message to buy, buy, buy, and consume, consume, consume, consume, but this message is illogical and potentially destructive.

If you’re really out in nature, you can’t buy anything.  For many of us, this is incredibly unsettling.  There’s no way to drive somewhere to buy things.  If you’re really outside, you might get dirty.  Contrast this with the bombardment of advertisements for cleaning solutions, dirt removers, lint rollers, and detergents.  It’s as if soil is evil.  Should I bring hand sanitizer, wipes, and 409 cleaning solution when I go deer hunting?  Of course not.   Have we forgotten that just about everything comes from soil?   “If you spend time on a mountaintop, you get dirty—you slip and soil sticks to your sweat, or you climb out of the tent at night to pee and the soles of your feet are in actual contact with the forest floor.  Such exposure reminds you that dirt, after all, is not disease, or filth, or ordure, but simply the stuff of the planet,” McKibben points out.

Lastly, All implicit and explicit messages on TV relate to the idea that you are the center of the universe.  Therefore, your choices about what product to buy, what shows or lifestyles to endorse take precedent over reaching the understanding (that you do in nature) that us humans are really insignificant, part of a greater whole.   Like the disintegration of fundamental skills in society, this mindset drives us away from an understanding of who we are, and where we come from, in addition to the environmental impact out decisions make. 

Are McKibben’s lessons more or less pressing with regards to the internet?  How does the fact that many of us use the internet more than we watch cable TV change his argument?  How much does the internet contribute to the idea that you are the center of the universe?   Is it OK for so many of our skills to reside in the digital realm? 


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