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Five modern distractions that are leading us to our doom

By Pieta Woolley

We love razzle-dazzle too much, and it’s killing democracy.

Way back in the dewy, pre-Internet, pre-Trump era of 1985, educator Neil Postman issued this dire analysis in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. He argued that the future will be less like George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), in which totalitarian governments assume control, and more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), in which people entertain themselves into a state of useless bliss.

Looking backwards, the “amusements” of 1985 seem dull by today’s positively bacchanalian standards. Postman wrote a lot about TV although to be fair, the mid-1980s offered up some great ‘tube’ (Cheers, Night Court, Miami Vice, Knight Rider and The Cosby Show, etc.). Still, TV of yesteryear was nothing like the Moulin Rouge-esqe din of today’s entertaining bliss.

Also, in 1985, the Cold War was grinding toward its last, apartheid was falling, you could still afford a house in Vancouver and Toronto, climate change was a fringy concern, and Canadians could reasonably expect to spend a long, thriving career in a factory, forest or fishing boat. What’s more, Ronald Reagan was considered “entertaining” for a president. So if people were distracted, well, so what?

Today, we have melting glaciers, busted unions, homes selling for $800,000 over asking price and the most refugees since WWII — all presided over by the man who brought us the Miss Universe pageant and The Apprentice. And there’s no functional global revolution in sight (unless electing populists or marching in pink pussy hats counts as revolution).

So what are we doing instead?

Here are five modern distractions that are leading us to our doom. 

1. Adult colouring books

In this month’s Observer, I wrote that trendy adult colouring books have taken over the country’s magazine shelves, displacing Maclean’s and The Walrus. In one comment, Observer contributor Trisha Elliott wondered whether people were listening to important stuff while they coloured or praying. “I hate colouring,” she admitted.

2. Video games

Even in Pac Man-y 1985, time-sucking, addictive video games elicited parental sweat over undone homework, failure to exercise and directionless pre-adulthood. An investigation by 1843 Magazine this month found that it’s not just griping; a significant proportion of young adult men really do seem to be giving up on school and working in favour of the console. 

3. Opioids

Canadians consume more prescription opioids — painkillers — than any other country in the world. That’s a United Nations statistic tucked into a recent Maclean’s article detailing our country’s fentanyl crisis. Of course, it’s not just prescription drugs that are helping to distract us. Drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana and crystal meth continue to be a part of the weekend recreation scene for many Canadians.

4. Slow food

If you want to talk about an amusement that’s absorbing the time and energy of privileged folks who really could be using their power for global change (I’m talking about YOU, recent retirees), look no farther than slow food. Really beautifully grown and prepared food is available relatively cheaply in most grocery stores. But a significant chunk of people are buying and planting posh seeds, as well as harvesting, preserving and cooking their own food. What’s more, they’re constantly cleaning up after all of this. As a result, slow food is like taking on another full-time job.  

5. ‘Slacktivism’

Perhaps the most insidious distraction (you can almost hear Huxley and Postman groaning from beyond the grave.) is the low commitment social activism on Facebook and Twitter: posting important articles to your feed for your friends to “like” and participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge and its antecedents. As Scott Gilmore points out in this excellent 2014 article, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign did not, in fact, stop Boko Haram. Millions of ‘slacktivists’ got their dopamine going by doing something somewhat altruistic but completely failed to make change.  

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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