Attention spanless

How much has our appetite for entertainment cost us in useful knowledge?

Susan Jacoby prefers reason to superstition, facts to “truthiness,” and principled decisions to “gut checks.” That means she’s disappointed a great deal of the time.

Her latest book, The Age of American Unreason, claims that American culture is not threatened by any of the usual suspects (same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration) but by an entrenched lack of curiosity about anything other than our right to be passively, mindlessly entertained.

Jacoby brings historical perspective to the American Idol-ization of the public sphere. Some of it has to do with the prosperity that gave us insular, suburban nests designed around a sensory chamber that was once called a family room and is now an “entertainment center.” We’re just not all that curious about anything except our own comfort. I’m as guilty as the next gal: All I wanted for my birthday was a comfortable chair.

Of course, I’m planning to use that chair for reading, which is an odd choice for a contemporary pastime. Although, SN&R’s readers are, well, readers (a recent Media Audit indicated that 47 percent of regular SN&R readers buy at least a book a month). That puts them in the top 1 percent of Americans. When it comes to reading, we’re not average.

Jacoby acknowledges that Americans have to work harder than ever to stay afloat. With too many bills to pay and too many balls to keep in the air, the choices we make are not always the best for our health, whether it’s the decision to drive when we could walk or to watch The Biggest Loser instead of reading a book.

Some of those choices require more of us. Jacoby’s clear about how much more effort we put into reading. It’s not just that our eyes work harder (compare the engaged focus of a reader with a collection of Asimov in her hands to the blank stare we all take on while watching I, Robot). We think more while we read. Our brains work harder.

And that’s a big deal. A nation that intends to govern itself needs, in addition to an electoral system that works, an informed electorate. Just watch Idiocracy if reading Jacoby’s book is too much work.

I hoped it wasn’t that bad, that Jacoby’s assertions about Americans’ lack of knowledge of the Constitution and geography were limited in scope. So I took an informal survey of SN&R employees. These college-educated, bright, funny, engaged people are hardly representative of the coming idiocracy, but less than half (42 percent) could name Sacramento’s mayor and two of the eight city council members. We tanked on questions like, “How many members in the U.S. House of Representatives?” and “Name two countries that border Mexico.”

Given the demographic here, that’s extremely disappointing—although the editorial staff members who cover city government did very well. The best scores were in the over-40 group, and even that was a low C.

We need to read. The Age of American Unreason is a good place to start. Otherwise, we might end up with the idiocracy we deserve.