The Decline and Fall of Our Mythologies

What happens when information swamps our common myths? What happens to humans when facts overtake commonly shared fantasies?

In yesterday’s post, I started by looking at how our culture might be moving too quickly for myths to keep up. This is important because human’s have historically used myths to create a “oneness” of mind. Myths often come bundled with behavioral codes and societal rules. Myths have dictated how we should think and act. Myths rule the mob.

But in the last century, one sweeping technical advance had two very different impacts on two different parts of our world. Today, I want to examine the impact of TV in North America and Communist Russia.

The Death of Mythology in America

bowlingaloneIn his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam noticed that American values did an abrupt u-turn somewhere in the middle of the 60’s. After a decades long trend of increasing participation in community activities, Americans stopped spending time together. They went to church less often, belonged to fewer service organizations, attended fewer PTA meetings, stopped having dinner parties, stopping playing Bridge with the neighbors and quit their bowling leagues. Not coincidentally, the percentage of voter turnout in elections also started to drop. Americans, once the most intensely community minded people on earth, stopped spending time with each other.

This trend didn’t make American’s bad people, however. At the same time that American’s became less concerned about the well being of their immediate community, they became more concerned about universal issues such as civil rights, equality of women, international piece, religious persecution, sexual intolerance, freedom of speech and nuclear disarmament. At the same time we were becoming less engaged with our communities we were becoming more open minded and tolerant in our ideologies.

bowlingalonegraphThe chart shown, from the BuyerSphere Project, provides one hint about why this mental about face may have happened in the middle of the 60’s:

As you can see, the 50’s and 60’s were also the decades where most of us brought TV into our homes. In 1950, only about 12% of American homes had TV. By 1960, that number had exploded to 78%. This meant we spent more time in our homes, which naturally meant we spent less time outside the home, interacting with others. That alone might explain our withdrawal from our communities. But a simple reckoning of where we spend our time wouldn’t explain the ideological blossoming of America. I believe it was more than just where we were spending our time. I believe it was what we were spending our time doing. As we viewed the world through a flickering blue screen, our common myths were being slowly but surely destroyed.

Myths rely on an absence of information. Myths depend on a singular point of view, supported by carefully chosen and disseminated information, in the guise of facts. The more singular the culture, the more important it is to carefully restrict the flow of information. Societies where there are strict codes of behavior and adherence to one ideology have the tightest censorship rules and the most virulent propaganda.

The Myth of the American Dream

While America in the first half of the 20th century was philosophically a democratic, pluralistic society, it was, in practice, a culture heavily bound by commonly held myths. In 50 years, America was rocked by two world wars and a decade long economic crisis. Well over half of these 50 years was spent united against a common enemy and sharing in common hardships. We were sustained by our mythologies – the importance of hard work, the ultimate rightness of democracy, the ultimate wrongness of tyranny, the ideal of the American dream. Our channels of information carefully supported these myths and filtered out dissenting facts. Even in the 50’s, the imagined spectre of Communism helped us maintain a common mythology, leading to McCarthyism and other irrational behaviors.

But in the 60’s, the electronic window of television provided a new channel of information. The history of television typically runs a similar path wherever it plays out. In the beginning, it is a tightly restricted channel that offers governments and other power structures an unprecedented opportunity to build and strengthen common mythologies through controlled programming and propaganda. But, over time, the leash on TV programming inevitably gets loosened. It’s difficult to keep too tight a reign on a communication medium that travels freely over the airwaves. The common mythological view gives way to a pluralistic, fragmented pipeline of information. We see other realities, other ideologies, other cultures. As awareness seeps into our collective consciousness, our myths start to die. Our “oneness” gets fragmented across multiple ideological and sociological lines.

This, I believe, is what happened to us, starting in the 60’s. Television forever changed how we looked at the world. TV provided the lens through which we lost our innocence, discovering other truths beyond the American mythology. Putnam also cites TV as one of the factors that eroded our social capital. I suspect it played a bigger part than even he imagined.

The Death of Mythology in the USSR

communist-poster-1967-grangerIf the effect of TV was earth shaking in a democratic America, at least it appears that most of our institutions will survive the transition. Our governments are essentially built on the same foundations they were a century ago. The same was not true for Communist Russia. There, the very structures of government crumbled along with their myths.

In the analysis of the decline and fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union, the role of television has only been mentioned in passing, but the timeline of the introduction of TV and the decline of the Soviet Communist government are suspiciously aligned. State controlled TV was introduced in the Soviet Union at roughly the same time as in North America (just before World War II) but its spread was delayed by the war. Also, the saturation rate of TV in the Soviet Union lagged far behind America. In 1960, when 78% of Americans had a set in their homes, only 5% of the Soviet population could watch TV. It wasn’t until the mid 80’s that over 90% of Soviets could watch TV. This coincided almost exactly with the introduction of glasnost (transparency, openness and freedom of information) and perestroika (a restructuring of government) by Mikhail Gorbachev. Demands for more openness and freedom moved in lock step with the adoption of TV and the lessening of restrictions on programming.

If the pervasiveness of myths was an important factor in the history of America, the very mythology of Communism was the foundation of Soviet history. History was literally rewritten to make sure that available information aligned with the mythology currently in vogue. And this mythology, the utopia of Communist ideology and the depravity of capitalism (myths that run directly counter to our western ones) kept the emotions of Soviets aligned for the first 60 years. But just like their American counterparts, TV provided Soviets with a glimpse of reality beyond the mythology. There were other channels of information that began to erode faith in the myths. The speed of TV surpassed the durability of the myths. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Accelerated Demise of Our Myths

The decline of our myths started with the introduction of TV, but the fragmentation of our ideologies and realities has been accelerated dramatically by the Internet. We are bombarded by information, much of which comes to us through unedited, unrestricted channels. The Internet is a massive organic hotbed of differing opinions from millions of different voices. Myths can hardly hope to survive in such an environment.

My original question was: what happens when information strips away our myths, along with the social codes embedded in them? What happens when our common views are shattered into billions of different fragments? If the introduction of TV caused the social fabric of America to unravel and the Soviet empire to crumble, what will the digital onslaught of information do?

What indeed?

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