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Distracting Ourselves to Death
Loss of connection and loss of continuity
In 1985, media critic Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, a striking title that warned about the effects of the entertainment industry, primarily television, on society. He argued that we are becoming accustomed to prioritize being entertained over being challenged to think through complex problems. Decades later, we can see this in the formula for TED talks, or in the ubiquity of podcasts and TikTok videos. Postman claimed that, compared with a reading culture, our public life was being dumbed down.
My purpose in this essay is to speculate about the effect of media in the private sphere of our relationships. It seems that more people are marrying late or not at all. People are having fewer children, and a large proportion of children grow up in households without two parents.
I believe that to marry and raise children requires a strong sense of connection and continuity. You have to feel, and to want to feel, like part of a historical chain that connects backward to your ancestors and forward to your descendants.
Organized religion emphasizes this chain of connection. You are most likely to participate in a religious ceremony around the major events of life: birth, puberty, marriage, and death. At these times, you are prompted to recall ancestors and dwell on the future of young people. Think of the song “Sunrise, Sunset” from the musical Fiddler.
In general, distractions have been increasing in the media environment. People are finding it more difficult to stay on task, whether it is reading, writing, or working on a project.
This is not accidental of course. One hundred years ago, there was much less competition for your attention. A newspaper might have a salacious headline, but then the point was to get you to buy the paper, not to draw your attention away from something else or to hold on to your eyeballs. Now, clickbait, “notifications,” and “the scroll” are scientifically engineered to grab you.
So my hypothesis about the decline of marriage and child-bearing is simple. In the competition for attention, modern media wins and relationships lose. Finding a spouse and raising children are long-term projects. The steady focus that they require is becoming harder and harder to muster.
Of course, there are plenty of other theories. For example, in this interview, Melissa Kearney, economist and author of The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, says,
It's quite telling that the decline of birth rates in the U.S. has been widespread across the country, across socioeconomic groups. We're really left in a place where what we need is some sort of universal explanation, I think.
…We proposed that priorities have shifted across cohorts, such that people reaching adulthood in more recent years are less committed to having kids or multiple kids than people used to be. We're not just suggesting that preferences have shifted. It's potentially also about parenting having become more intensive over decades, over a period when women have more career opportunities, so the conflicts between focusing your adult life on having and raising kids and pursuing a career is more in conflict than it used to be. People might want to spend more time now in non-family-oriented activities than in the past, and that's become more socially acceptable.
So basically what I think is going on is that young adults today who were born in the 1980s and 1990s are making different decisions about how they want to spend their adult time and money, as compared to the cohorts of people who were born in the 1960s and 1970s. It's important to note that this is speculative.
Pointer from Timothy Taylor.
Later in the interview, Kearney is forthright about the problems for children raised by a single parent.
highly educated Americans often speculate about this topic: "Oh, we're just becoming more northern European in our attitudes about this." But that's not what's happening. The decline in marriage among parents in the U.S. has not been replaced with a corresponding rise in unmarried parents stably living together for the long haul and essentially being married in all but name. In the U.S., cohabitation is a very fragile arrangement.
Steven Covey, the self-help guru of the 1990s, used a two-by-two table to classify tasks as urgent/not urgent and important/not important. Urgent means it grabs you. Important means that it really matters in the long run. He said that the challenge is to spend more time on the tasks that are important but not urgent and less time on the tasks that are urgent but not important.
Finding a spouse and having children is in the important/not urgent quadrant. Checking your phone for new messages is in the urgent/not important quadrant. We have to learn how to fight that.