Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dumbing it Down

Videos of handling equipment at work are hardly instructive as to how things are made.  But this is what the television thinks we are capable of handling.  They want to keep us passive and uncreative.

I was recently watching this show on Netflix, called "How its Made" and I was bitterly disappointed in it.  Why?  Well, the producers seem to enjoy showing mesmerizing video of automated equipment used in high-volume, high production factories, which, while interesting, doesn't really tell you "how its made" at all.

It reminds me, in a way of this Monty Python bit, where they describe how to cure all the diseases in the world, as well as how to play the flute:
Alan: Well, last week we showed you how to become a gynecologist. And this week on 'How to do it' we're going to show you how to play the flute, how to split an atom, how to construct a box girder bridge, how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, but first, here's Jackie to tell you all how to rid the world of all known diseases.
Jackie: Hello, Alan.
Alan: Hello, Jackie.
Jackie: Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvelous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so they'll never be any diseases ever again.
Alan: Thanks, Jackie. Great idea. How to play the flute. (picking up a flute) Well here we are. You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here.
Noel: Great, great, Alan. Well, next week we'll be showing you how black and white people can live together in peace and harmony, and Alan will be over in Moscow showing us how to reconcile the Russians and the Chinese. So, until next week, cheerio.
That pretty much sums up the show, How It's Made.

For example, a segment on cheese-making shows milk going in one end of a factory, and cheese coming out the other.  In the middle are lots of machines moving around blocks of cheese.  You see the cutting and packaging, but the actual process, with the enzymes, is glossed over.  How they clean the trucks is more clearly illustrated.

The show is non-empowering. Nowhere do people appear - running things or doing things.  The message is clear:  You are a consumer.  Our robot overlords make products for you.  Do not try this at home.

And it is a dumb message for a dumb culture.  People can make cheese.  My hateful town clerk runs a cheese factory in her back yard.  I have been to a goat cheese factory in France - and saw people making cheese.  I visited a cheese factory on the Gaspesie peninsula in Canada, and saw people making cheese.  The process is not hard to explain.

And an explanation of cheese-making really isn't complete without the history of it - and our relationship to the cows and the domestication of them.  And perhaps an explanation of different cheese types?  But no, all we get is video of blocks of cheese darting about through stainless steel conveyor belts, finally coming to rest in plastic pouch packages.  Cheese is handed down from the mechanical Gods.  You are little more than a consumer.  Eat your nachos and shut up.

Or take the segment on making CDs.  It goes through the process, spending more time explaining the washing steps than how CDs work or are formatted or how the data is stored (in pits and lands).  All you get from the segment is more mechanical ballet of automation.

CDs are hard.  Machines make them.  You can't.  You are a dummy. 

Why is this a bad thing?  Because it dumbs down our culture - and turns us into passive consumers.  Creating things is "hard" and technology is "difficult" so you might as well not bother, and just get a job in Human Resources or sales.

But it is people, not machines, who make things, and people who makes the machines.  And we needn't dumb down our discourse just to appease the lowest common denominator.  And that is exactly what is going on, too.  Journalism majors and TeeVee producers - themselves having an 8th grade educational level - are scared of technology and believe that "content" will scare off viewers.  "You don't want to confuse people with facts," I've heard them say, "Punch up the story with good visuals and quotes!"

So they think a "Reality TeeVee" show about motorcycles, where people scream and throw wrenches at each other is more interesting than one where they actually explain how they build motorcycles. They tell us that the emotional drama is so much more interesting than real facts, real technology, and real creativity.  And this drags our entire culture down to the level of soap opera.

People can create things - even complex things.  Apple computer was created in a garage by two guys who built a computer.  Geniuses? Hardly.  A lot of people were building "hobby computers" at the time.  Turns out, anyone can do it - people still do, today.

People build their own cars - either through kits, or through their own designs, or by rebuilding old cars from scratch. And often they engineer their own solutions to problems. And yea, they build motorcycles, too, although they don't generally throw wrenches and hissy fits.

And yes, people even build their own airplanes.  The Experimental Aircraft Association is dedicated to the principle that anyone can build their own airplane and should be allowed to do so.  And people do - a lot of people.  And it never ceases to amaze me that folks can spend a few winters in their basement with some spruce and glue and fabric and end up flying through the air later on.

Empowerment.  It is a very wonderful thing, to be able to actually do things, rather than just watch them on TeeVee.  But the powers that be want you to be powerless and clueless, for a number of reasons.  Powerless people are easy to manipulate.  You can sell the clueless idiots who watch Fox News just about any proposition you want to, because they likely are powerless people who are mere consumers, not creators.

So, everyone has an opinion, for example, about the economy.  How many of those opinions are very well informed?  Not many, it seems.  Most folks will vote for the candidate who promises bread and circuses - or $2.50 gas.  They have little or no clue about geopolitics, the laws of supply and demand, or even how the oil business works.  They really think the President gets up in the morning and decides how much gas will cost that week.  And we let these people vote.  Scary.

People ask me, "How do you know how to fix cars?" and I have to say, "Well, how do you not know?" and while that sounds smart-ass, it is essentially a truism.  How can you live on a planet for 3/4 of a Century and not understand even the basics of maintenance of the hundreds of thousands of dollars of machinery that will pass through your hands in your lifetime?

And the answer is - willful ignorance coupled with our "dumbing down" society.  Many folks act like ignorance is something to be proud of - as if soiling your hands with labor or your mind with knowledge is only something the "little people" do.

We built a studio in the back yard last year, and it is really a small factory that churns out ceramics.  People act amazed we built the building.  But it turns out, anyone can built a house.  All you need is a hammer.  for millions of years, we built our own shelter, made our own clothes, grew our own food.  Today, these skills are lost - and we are told that only "experts" with machines are even capable of it.

People act amazed when Mark makes a pot.  "How do you do that?" and the answer is, the same way our ancestors going back thousands of years made ceramics - which were essential for daily living.  It ain't real rocket science - you take clay out of the ground, shape it, fuse it in a kiln, then glaze it and then fuse it again.  voila.  Doing it well takes talent and experience, of course.  But the basics are not beyond the capability of anyone.

No doubt, if the producers of "How It's Made" did a segment on this, it would show lots of automated handling machinery and huge railroad-car-sized kilns, with the subliminal message of, "You can't do this, only big companies can" - and show stacks of bland and uncreative ceramics filling tractor-trailers.   Yea, we need this mass-produced stuff, but seeing how it is made is not very instructional - or empowering.

As a Patent Attorney, I see all the time, how great inventions are created - by people, often like you and me.  And the difference between and inventor and a consumer is often only that no one told the inventor he couldn't do something, or not to try, because it is too hard.

Unfortunately, more and more of our society is dumbing down.  Real information is hard to come by, and the major media outlets program more and more superficial information and intentionally edit out anything that seems difficult to understand, lest they "lose the audience" with "boring details."

And this yet another reason why I say not to watch television.  People ask me, "How can you stay informed, if you don't watch the news on TeeVee?" and I ask them the opposite, "How can you stay informed by watching this drivel?"

Seek out the hard information, the detailed facts, real information,  It is hard to do, but it is where the money lies - in learning things.  Don't waste your time with superficial crap, celebrity gossip, or these "Reality" TeeVee shows.  Fill your brain with garbage, and you will remain poor and powerless your whole life.

It never ceases to amaze me, how I meet people who know every detail on the background and status of every character on a Reality TeeVee show, like America's Idolatry or whatever, but have no clue what the balance is in their checkbook, or how to change the oil on their car.

It is a matter of priorities.  If you dumb down your own life, you have no one to blame but yourself, when you become a passive consumer and are powerless to control your own life.

Do the hard thing.  It pays off handsomely over time!