Excerpt from The Change Manifesto
Author to Reader: We Are Not What We Set Out to Be
BOBBLEHEADS IN BUBBLELAND
We have changed.
Consequently, the light of that once bright and shining city on a hill has dimmed. Americans, says journalist and author Nicholas von Hoffman, are living in a glass dome, a kind of terrarium, cut off from both reality and the outside world. In his words, they are "bobbleheads in Bubbleland...They shop in bubbled malls, they live in gated communities, and they move from place to place breathing their own, private air in the bubble-mobiles known as SUVs."
We are besieged by technological gadgets, which, while they have succeeded in creating numerous conveniences for our already busy lives, have also managed to fully occupy our attention, distracting us from meaningful discourse about issues of national and international significance.
America currently spends in excess of $40 billion annually on public education. Yet the numbers are undeniable: in comparing the literacy level of adults in seventeen industrialized countries, America was number ten on the list. And sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds under-perform their foreign counterparts as well. Moreover, they do so to a greater degree than do Americans over forty.
The number of Americans who read books has also steadily declined. As a recent National Endowment for the Arts report titled "Reading at Risk" found, many Americans do not ordinarily read voluntarily (that is, matter not required for work or school), and only 57 percent of American adults read a book in 2002.6 When they do read, it is often fiction or books that focus on narcissistic themes such as diet and self-help.
Millions of adults are lacking the most rudimentary knowledge about history and world geography, such as the identity of America's enemy in World War II. In fact,
one reads that 11 percent of young adults can't find the
United States on a world map, and that only 13 percent of them can locate Iraq. It turns out that only 12 percent of Americans own a passport, that more than 50
percent were (prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall) unaware that Germany had been split into eastern and western sectors in the aftermath of World War II, and that 45 percent believe that space aliens have visited the earth. As in the Middle Ages, when most individuals got their "understanding" of the world from a mass source-i.e., the Church-most Americans get their
'understanding' from another mass source: television.
Television, however, has been a poor teacher. Television news has become a function of entertainment to such an extent that political and historical analysis typically amounts to two- to three-minute sound bites. With such shallow content, it is easy to see why, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, 42 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks and 32 percent believed he had personally planned them. No wonder the average American's understanding of politics is generally reduced to a few slogans picked up the day before from broadcast news or late-night comedy shows.
There is truth in the adage that civilizations do not die from being attacked or invaded. They do themselves in. Americans today have come to embody what the renowned eighteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche termed "stupidity." Nietzsche was not referring to an intelligent quotient or ignorance, per se; rather, he meant stupidity as in mentally clogged, anesthetized, numb. As author and professor Thomas de Zengotita recognizes: "He thought people at the end of the nineteenth century were suffocating in a vast goo of meaningless stimulation."
The same could be said of Americans at the dawn of the twenty-first century. We, too, are mentally clogged, anesthetized, numb. Connected to our cell phones, computers, and television sets, we are increasingly disconnected from each other. Even when physically crowded together at concerts and sports spectacles, we fail to truly communicate with one another. According to author Alex Marshall, Americans live "in one of the loneliest societies on the earth."