I was reading a review of The Age of American Unreason over on Salon.com come last night, and I was thinking about some of the odd arguments that many intellectuals use to criticize much of the entertainment/information media. If you know me, you know that I think that television news is nearly worthless and my opinion of much of mainstream entertainment is pretty low. However much of the detractors of personal music players, television, and the Internet seem to make the same argument that the users create a cocoon and these media are killing thought and personal interaction with other human beings.
Oddly, they never make the same accusation toward reading print despite the fact that there is no more antisocial activity than reading. You can watch TV and talk together while watching. You can discuss music while actually listening to your mp3 player, as long as you've got it hooked up to speakers and not headphones, and much of the Internet's draw is its ability to allow you to meet and communicate with people you'd never otherwise meet.
First off, TV is the weakest of those three example media and even with it, it's not all trash. There are television shows that are probably equal to any of the great theatre comedies and movies that equal any of the classic dramas (a point the reviewer makes on the third page of the article). You can't really convince me that The Office is any less intelligent or worthwhile than any of the classic comedies by the often overrated bard, Shakespeare. It is true that enveloping yourself constantly in a sonic bubble is perhaps a bit antisocial and unhealthy, but it's not like the potential for abuse negates the worthiness of a product or medium. Besides, music does more to inspire art and creativity in me than it does to serve as a method of numbing my brain into submission. The Internet is perhaps the most unjustly criticized of the media mentioned. It's true that most people are just online for porn, entertainment gossip, and illegal downloading, but it also provides perhaps the best medium for news and discussion ever created. Television news is so constrained by time and ratings that the resulting product is just a thin smattering of the most interesting news with very little background or worthwhile analysis. Newspapers are better, but are still constrained by space. You get much more in-depth coverage of the news and news that doesn't make the TV cut is more likely to make the paper cut (hyuk hyuk), but with the Internet, there's no limit to space or time. The only limit to how much quality information you take in is how much time you allow yourself. When you're done reading about important issues that would never grace the ticker on CNN (of course Fox News wouldn't cover it; they're too busy covering a Cessna that might crash, but never does), you can head over to any of a plethora of discussion sites to discuss the issues of the day with equally intelligent and thoughtful people. The only issue is weeding out the crap from the gold, but that's an entirely different issue.
In addition, if you frequent those sorts of sites, it forces you to practice legitimate reading and writing skills. If you write in IM speak on the Ratebeer.com forums, you get ridiculed even though it's only a beer site, although it does feature off-topic forums that often include some intelligent culture, religion, and political discussion. It just happens to attract an incredibly intelligent following. If you frequent Plastic.com or any of the other sites where these sorts of issues are discussed, and you'll notice that writing skills and reading skills are still valued and the idiots are quickly pointed out and roasted. Of course there are still a lot of dumb comments even on these sites, but then most people lack the basic intelligence needed for logical thought.
Of course, I'm not criticizing reading for being an antisocial activity, I just don't think it's fair to criticize other media for creating an antisocial bubble when reading a book is inherently more antisocial. Unless you're seriously gifted in compartmentalizing your thought processes, you can't hold a conversation and read at the same time. You have to shut out others in order to read, but that's not always a bad thing. Moderation is always important, even for healthy activities, but shutting out the world occasionally is entirely healthy. To me the larger cultural issue is not the Ipod and television, but the cell phone. The neglect of friends and even strangers you could be talking to right next to you for a discussion with someone elsewhere by phone is baffling, as is the inability of many people to drive to the store without a phone stuck to their ear, and it a much more efficient method for eliminating thought and contemplation than music ever was, but that is another post entirely, and one I've actually discussed a little in the past.