Reviews > Culture

Changing civilizations

Culture | A population implosion & other cultural buzz

Issue: "Clinton: Time to resign," Aug. 29, 1998

A nicer way of being anti-child
How many children should a family have? Maybe One, says former New Yorker writer Bill McKibben (Simon & Schuster), aiming to make tiny families even more mainstream. Instead of the old-style population control scare talk, he takes up a friendly, engaging tone to convince families to cut down on their baby output. We're not headed for imminent disaster, says Mr. McKibben, but we're in big trouble eventually if we don't stop slurping resources. He walks a thin line in his book. He tries to keep his message calm enough to be mainstream, but urgent enough to talk Mom and Dad out of giving Junior a new playmate. Mr. McKibben admits that Julian Simon and other critics of the population scare have a few good points, but not enough to stop him from getting sterilized himself. He says early 19th century population theorist Thomas Malthus is fatally flawed and opposes one-child laws. He doesn't even seem too thrilled about immigration restrictions. Mr. McKibben dances around Bible passages about taking dominion over the Earth, but avoids the direct attack. His formula is that "environmental damage can be expressed as the sum of Population x Affluence x Technology." In other words, keep having kids and say hello to oil shortages, global warming, and plenty of overcrowding. Early in One, Mr. McKibben tries to argue that having just one child makes life easier. There's no division of resources and attention among siblings. And the only child doesn't have to fight with brothers and sisters for attention. And with fewer kids, Mom and Dad have more time for grown-up activities-as if parenting were not the ultimate grown-up activity. This book misses what should seem obvious: that current trends already work against large families. There's the obvious endless push for abortion and birth control. Add our confiscatory tax structure that forces mothers into the workforce and fathers into second jobs. The nuclear family has levels of challenges that Mr. McKibben doesn't touch, although he would have his own suggestions for solution. The problem for middle America today is not too many children, but a culture that wars against successful child-rearing. The internet and civilization
So if the Internet is the biggest thing since Gutenberg, what happens to writing and learning? Classicist James O'Donnell started doing online philosophy seminars several years ago. And he has many questions to ask about how all this new technology is changing the way we read and learn. His book Avatars of the Word brings new life to discussions of dead card catalogs and virtual libraries by putting the digital revolution in its proper context in Western civilization. There's nothing new under the sun. In the past, not just the printing press but codexes and illuminated manuscripts made their own revolutions. We face change just as Greek- and Latin-speaking monks faced it many centuries ago. Our copyright fights of yesteryear were foreseen by a sixth-century king who said "as the calf belongs to the cow, so the copy belongs to the book." In the past, Bible scholars kept great wealths of information in their heads, recalling them when necessary. That was replaced by familiarity with black type on white paper. Now, Mr. O'Donnell says the era of the book is coming to an end. Instead of fighting to place one's scholarship in academic print journals, budding professors will fight the "publish or perish" wars by winning inclusion in the right online directories. In the end normal narrative will be replaced by a polyphony of opinions. A major part of education will be training people to surf the Web intelligently for information in the same way that students are supposed to be taught how to use books and libraries. Mr. O'Donnell wanders through many topics in his book, but his theme is familiar: The Internet is the living carrier of postmodernism. What he doesn't discuss, however, is how our society is drowning in information while remaining parched in wisdom. Killing the book, but reviving old-time radio
Most know the Net as a way of introducing new media, but in at least one way it is bringing back old entertainment. Old Time Radio, or OTR, is finding a niche in cyberspace. Audio technology has improved to the point that The Shadow and Fibber McGee & Molly can be heard off a standard home modem. A few personal pages post archives. Orson Welles's famous War Of The Worlds broadcast is readily available and is a good introduction to the medium. Two services put large amounts of programming online. Radio Spirits (www.radiospirits.com) produces many hours of weekly anthologies such as When Radio Was that air nationwide. These shows are simulcast on the Net, and can be played at any time. They make money by selling tape collections of old shows. Yesterday USA is a radio network (www.yesterdayusa.org) that broadcasts old shows via Net and satellite dish. It features volunteer DJs who play rare shows-from Gunsmoke to World War II newscasts-from their own collections. OTR is both a trip into the past and an alternate universe. It's well worth a visit. The Roosevelt-Truman era never ended in this world, and later cultural shifts aren't reflected in these programs. Pure entertainment was the goal, and today's excesses were never considered. The worldview of Jack Benny or Suspense is as blank as today, but its emphases were different. Titillation was a no-no, and those who crossed the line (like Mae West) got in hot water. Producers crafted dialogue, voices, and sound effects to make pictures in the imagination, not the TV tube. Today, the mental exercise is a refreshing break from our current video-saturation. But instead of trying to be "relevant" about social crises, radio drama stepped over them. Messages were simple: Crime does not pay. Buy war bonds. Call for Phillip Morris. It's the sort of thing that would make today's hipsters roll over laughing. But what will later generations think of our cable TV?

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