And the dumb shall inherit the Earth

It's everywhere you look. 'Baywatch', soundbites, the crumbling of art and culture, the disappearance of general knowledge - Dumbing Down is upon us. Or is this just the grumble of ageing Luddites who can't cope? Reggie Nadelson asks whether we are facing totalitarianism or liberation
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The Independent Online
Sex, food, and money. Sex and diets. Sex on the Internet. Greed, car-sex, Baywatch (I'll get back to Baywatch), are you with me? (A newspaper editor once told me you can say anything so long as you put the word sex, that's S-E-X, in every sentence). Can I get on with some thoughts about the DUMBING DOWN of just about everything now? We are talking the world made idiot-proof, the language moronic, the common folk spoon-fed intellectual baby food that's been pre-chewed to make it go down easy, people dependent on a million channels of sound-bite, conned into the passive acceptance of shrink-wrapped verities or, worse still, proud to be thick. According to the pundits, we are talking a planet apparently now almost entirely occupied by a new breed of Epsilon Semi-morons, but then who reads Brave New World any more? I mean who reads books?!

Life for dummies is what we are talking here. The Information Age without information, only raw data, gobbets of news without any context, sound- bites which are now down to, is it 14 seconds, or is it eight? All those satellites. All those channels. Not to mention 106,000 books published every year in Britain, all apparently unread, if you heed the daily commentaries of wise persons.

Every day I read commentaries about the evils of the new information delivery systems, how they contribute to the dumbing down of society, about the airwaves and newspapers stuffed with stuff, but where nothing means more than the thing itself and all things are, therefore, equal: Michael Jackson's baby, oestrogen replacement therapy, Labour Party economic policy, Zaire's rebel soldiers, Selma Hayak's Oscar dress, Bill Clinton's hanky-panky, mortgage rates, topless darts. This is a situation where exactly the same value is accorded to Jeremy Paxman and the News Bunny.

Anyone who's got cable in the UK knows that, just like the States, 72 channels of TV means 72 channels of mostly crap. You spell that C-R-A- P and it's synonymous with D-U-M-B. Nor does the coming of Channel 5 hold out any particular promise of vigorous debate or brilliant entertainment. The rest of TV is in a pretty parlous state, too: costume dramas look tackier every year, the scripts are sillier, the classics dumbed down to suit the attention span of a video generation of channel-surfers. (Did anyone catch Jane Eyre for Dummies the other week?) Thrillers are less thrilling, documentaries personality-driven, everything easier, simpler. Youth TV. Narrow-casting. You can almost hear the universal television barker cry, "Dumb on Down". With dozens of channels you get narrow-casting and with narrow-casting you get narrow minds, at least according to Walter Cronkite, America's venerable newsman. You can head straight for the golf channel or the celebrity station now without ever encountering so much as a headline about Zaire or Albania as you just might have done when forced to watch the network news or read a newspaper. The problem's not just cable television, of course; anyone who watches News at Ten or reads the tabloids can tell you that.

You can read the dumbing down of just everything in pretty much everything, it seems. In the death of books. The death of television. The takeover by television. Paul Johnson's view of television as the satanic medium - it was Johnson, wasn't it? The corruption of the language, bad grammar, the illiterate young, the stupido old, pop culture, pop culture applied to high art, high art made easy whether it's classical musicians in cowboy suits or CDs of Beethoven-for-Brides. I don't even want to think about education.

By God, we're talking moral decay here, we're talking the breakdown of civil society, the end of family values, the rise of crime, the takeover by machines of the human spirit, the catering to the politically correct in aid of the know-nothings and care less. It is the end of the world as we know it, the end of European culture, of that universal store of facts once known as General Knowledge, a shared file you could assume most reasonably well educated people could access. I mean, without it, how would Mastermind have existed, or University Challenge endure? Last week alone I met several educated people in London who did not know that Arthur C Clarke invented the geo-stationary satellite and one who insisted that Sinologists study respiratory problems. As Miss Adelaide says (in Guys & Dolls), "a person could develop a cold".

What I really think is we're all beginning to sound like a lot of crusty old Luddites who sometimes want to break up the machines out of sheer ignorance. The computer won't start. My head hurts. Gimme a book!

What I really think is that "Dumbing Down" is, in fact, this year's Political Correctness. It's the buzz phrase, the catchall assertion, used by hacks in search of a subject or dinner party guests looking for high-minded banter. Maybe in the end it's just a piece of rhetorical journo-prop, a way to fend off our feeling that a little piece of familiar territory - books, classical music, morality - has been colonised by a new generation and we don't really get it.

No one reads. Books are dead. (It used to be God, but it's books now.) Someone recounted the following story to me recently. A bright young guy, a guy with a BA from Oxford or Cambridge or maybe it was Harvard, interviewed a famous writer. So impressed was the writer with the said young man that he asked, "So what are you reading these days?" The young man was somewhat taken aback. He replied, "Oh, I don't read."

Shocked? Well, it turned out the young guy did other stuff - music, movies, videos, computers. The revenge of the kids, it also turns out, is that they are connected to the new technology in their viscera, plugged into the Web, the Net, in a way we'll never be. (They can program the VCR!)

They don't even have to stick it in our faces; they just get on with reinventing the world. They are not dumb. Just different. There is a Dumb World, all right, but there always has been and no nostalgia merchant's going to convince me otherwise.

It's not about computers vs books, though, or the destruction of the novel by the politically correct or whether opera's in decline. It's about a territory where people, and they come in all colours and all classes, are aggressively stupid, sometimes violent, mostly angry, always illiberal. These are people who go in for a lot of childlike posturing, who figure anyone who's smart is arrogant and stuck-up, a geek, a nerd. They are convinced that it's cool to be dumb because it's not what you know that matters but what you feel. And they are suckers.

They are suckers for anything or anyone that panders to them, and, with all those channels, there is plenty of media to do it these days. This is the dumbing down that's scary, and it's scariest because a very few people own an awful lot of the territory now. They are not dumb, either, the moguls who own the airwaves. They are very very smart.

That's the scary stuff. In the real land of the dumb, feeling is more important than fact, analysis, thought or intelligence. Feeling is what matters because if you get them by their emotions, they're yours for life.

It's the stuff of totalitarianism, of course. The most successful totalitarian societies depended heavily on the emotional power of carefully skewed news, all of it fed into and fed by a particular agenda.

Remember the old Soviet weather reports? If it was snowing in Moscow and freezing cold, it was good clean health-giving cold, the socialist snow refreshing, the very weather an uplift. A warm day in California was a soggy, evil, polluted kind of day, all that capitalistic sunshine pouring bad rays on the witless population.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I want some pure intelligence in charge, either. If the major information-delivery systems were programmed by the good and the great, if the channels were altogether un-dumb, then who would tempt the oppressed?

It was Dallas and Dynasty that brought down the Berlin Wall, if you recall, the tantalising glimpse of big cars and big blondes that spurred many East Germans to action. Much the same thing is happening now from China to Iran, thanks to satellites. In Iran, for instance, Baywatch is very very big. There, many young people willingly risk the wrath of the mullah for a look at Pamela Anderson. I mean what upstanding kid would risk his soul for a glimpse of Panorama?

Pamela Anderson, may the force be with you. It is you, Pam, and the whole Baywatch team, who will rescue the world from the religious ideologues, it is you who will make dumb good. It is Baywatch that will probably make it finally OK for us to tread water in a delicious sea of dumb. Because it is Baywatch, delivered by the new technology, that will probably cause the ayatollahs to take off their robes and come on in and dumb down with the rest of us.