By most estimates, South Korea is the most wired society in the world. South Koreans “enjoy” virtually universal internet access at speeds and prices that Americans can only dream about.
But that access comes at a high price: by official government estimates nearly two million South Koreans can be described as “internet addicts.”
Now, the words “addict” and “addiction” get thrown around a lot in contemporary culture, but what would you call the following: a Korean couple repeatedly leaves their apartment and goes to an internet café where they spend all night playing an internet game. One night they return to find their three-month-old daughter dead from malnutrition and dehydration.
This actually happened in Seoul. While it’s the most extreme case, the difference is one of degree, not kind. An episode of PBS’ “Frontline” showed South Korean kids at government-sponsored rehab centers trying, mostly in vain, to wean themselves from their dependence on the internet.
There are several lessons we can learn from the South Korean experience, but I will settle for just one: We would be wrong to believe that media is inherently value-neutral and that any harm stems from the way it is used.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we shape our media and afterwards our media shapes us. It does this not only by what it depicts and tell us, but in the habits and dispositions it inculcates in those who consume it.
I’m not saying anything new: in 1989, Ken Myers, in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, wrote that “Christian concern about popular culture should be as much about the sensibilities it encourages as about its content.”
Popular culture, with its emphasis on the new and immediate, reliance on instant accessibility and the casual, time-killing way it is usually consumed, is changing us — and not for the better: We are becoming less reflective, more impatient and easily bored, to name but a few ways. The result is what Myers called a “loss of cultural memory, [and] a loss of commitment to the future and the past.”
Twenty-three years later, Myers seems, if anything, overly optimistic. Christians are adept at sniffing out objectionable content, but we are largely oblivious to the impact of media and popular culture on our sensibilities.
Take the easily bored part: do you compulsively glance at your smartphone screen while waiting in line? Of course you do.
Those of us with kids have no doubt noticed that “multitasking” doesn’t do justice to the way they consume media. The average American kid crams nearly 11 hours of media into 7.5 hours in front of screens: consuming multiple media streams at the same time is becoming the rule rather than the exception.
It’s not that they are better at processing information — studies actually show just the opposite — it’s that they, like their South Korean counterparts, have come to somehow need the stimulation. Their threshold for “boredom” has been recalibrated by the media they — and we — consume.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Those of us over, say, 40, can remember a time when we weren’t staring at our phones in the checkout line. I don’t recall being particularly bored.
This isn’t nostalgia — it’s understanding that sensibilities that have been distorted can be straightened out. “How?” is the subject of our next broadcast. I hope you will tune in.
Publication date: May 22, 2012