Futurist says there will be blood
Steven Gaydos on ‘Megatrends’ author John Naisbitt, who predicts more dark days for culture that immerses its young in rewards of mayhem
In America, children are being drafted into war at about the age of seven. The Military-Industrial Complex that President Eisenhower warned against is becoming a Military-Nintendo Complex, with insidious consequences for our children and our society. American military actions resemble high-tech electronic games while on our own soil we are witnessing another war: The soldiers are children, the battlegrounds their schools and their engagements resemble the same violent electronic games that train our military and ‘entertain’ our children.”
High Tech/High Touch: Technology and Our Search for Meaning, by John Naisbitt, Nana Naisbitt, Douglas Philips, 1999 (Nicholas Brealy)
On Jan. 10, 2013, in post-Newtown America, no one was surprised to read the headline that popped up on screens all over the world: “Biden’s gun violence event interrupted by news of another school shooting.”
The debate about real-life violence and the disturbing abundance of mayhem and bloodshed in American entertainment is only the newest eruption of concern.
It may not even be the loudest.
So will it have any more effect than the rancorous debates and calls for change that filled the screens, newspaper and airwaves in the decades past?
When noted futurist John Naisbitt, author of the business classic “Megatrends,” published the passage above, America was still in shock over the school shooting at Columbine. At the time, Naisbitt diagnosed the problem as a shift in our society from being a “technologically comfortable place” to being a “technologically intoxicated zone” where “violence is accepted as normal” and “violent material is targeted at children.”
Three years later, Michael Moore made his analysis of the links between gun violence and American culture, “Bowling for Columbine.”
A decade on, Moore said he finds it “personally heartbreaking” that it appears his film had seemingly no effect on the levels of gun violence in America. Naisbitt echoes the words of Moore and described himself as “sick at heart because of the political paralysis. What the hell is going on?” and quickly answered his own question: “We are in decline, of course.”
Naisbitt’s reputation as a world-class thinker and futurist was cemented with “Megatrends,” a game-changing tome that has sold an estimated 20 million copies and served as a central document for those attempting to anticipate and analyze the major cultural, political and social shifts of the past and current centuries.
Is Naisbitt right? Is America in some kind of inexorable decline? Is our inability to protect our children from gun violence only a symptom of a larger problem, a sign that our lawmaking, our culture and our technology is holding a literal gun to the heads of our young people and we, the people, are powerless to stop the kind of change we don’t want to believe in?
In the debate and dialogue about possible links between American violence and entertainment, any voices of reason, questioning or caution seem to be drowned out by special interests.
From the National Rifle Assn. to the various constituencies of show business — including videogame developers, moviemakers, TV show creators and musicians that collectively reap tens of billions of dollars from the public’s appetite for entertainment, violent or not — the noise of denial and the abundance of finger-pointing is more than obfuscating: It’s infuriating, which is leading to louder shouts for a solution and less clarity than ever about where a path to a solution should begin.
Naisbitt believes we are, as a society, collectively looking past the obvious starting point.
“We need a change in this culture, a shift, and that kind of change always begins with young people,” said Naisbitt. “So what are we doing? We are augmenting, accelerating the violence. There is a feeding frenzy and it’s focused on the youngest members of the culture.”
In its 107 years of covering show business, Variety has recorded every shout of alarm, and many of them sound disturbingly similar to Naisbitt. Across virtually every decade of the 20th century and the 21st, from Father Lord and Will Hays to Joseph Breen to Fredric Wertham to Newton Minow to Tipper Gore, only the names of concerned politicians, educators, clergyman and psychologists change but the message is the same.
What is unchanged is the fact that all of their cries for moderation and censorship of violent entertainment have been, over time, overwhelmed by the public’s hunger for increasingly brutal make-believe carnage.
And the number of mass shootings in the real America continues.
Is there, as Naisbitt believes, a connection?
Critics of controls or censorship argue that there’s no overwhelming scientific evidence at this point, but if there were, what would change?
Research into the links between playing violent videogames and aggressive behavior have not delivered conclusive evidence, although many studies have been conducted, with one of the latest from Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State U., who co-authored a 2012 study about the negative effects of playing violent videogames.
Bushman noted, “We conducted a comprehensive review of 136 articles reporting 381 effects involving over 130,000 participants around the world. These studies show that violent videogames increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure), and aggressive behavior. Violent games also decrease helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others.”
“The effects occurred for males and females of all ages, regardless of what country they lived in. This review also sheds light on why violent videogames increase aggression. Someone who has aggressive thoughts, feels angry inside, lacks empathy for others, and is highly aroused should be more likely to behave aggressively. In summary, although they are not the only factor that increases aggression, violent videogames do have a significant effect on aggression.”
Naisbitt notes that other cultures, such as China, where violent videogames are outlawed, are also grappling with the apparent links, but it’s unlikely that anyone invested in the multi-billion-dollar American entertainment industry or in the protections of the First Amendment will find much solace in authoritarian answers to free-society questions.
Try, though, for a moment, to imagine instituting rules such as China’s ban on gaming consoles, which has led to a burgeoning underground illegal games culture.
While no one can be too surprised by censorship in communist China, Naisbitt, who worked in the education department of the Kennedy Adminstration back when Kennedy’s FCC chairman Newton Minow famously called television a vast wasteland, reminds that one of the loudest voices for cultural censorship came from the conservative jurist Robert Bork.
“I was not a fan of most of the late Robert Bork’s ideas,” said Naisbitt, “but I am still haunted by his concerns about what he saw as a dangerously ‘brutalized culture.’ ”
In light of the current debate, it’s worth recalling Bork’s exact words in his controversial book “Slouching Towards Gomorrah” (Harper, 2003): “Censorship as an enhancement of liberty may seem paradoxical. Yet it should be obvious, to all but dogmatic First Amendment absolutists, that people forced to live in an increasingly brutalized culture are, in a very real sense, not wholly free. The alternative to censorship, legal and moral, will be a brutalized and chaotic culture with all that entails for our society, economy, politics and physical safety.”
As Naisbitt reflected on what he sees as “the wrong direction” American society has gone in the first dozen years of the new century, he emphasizes that the first step is recognizing the impact that violent media has upon the young.
“It’s intensified and become more pervasive,” he said. “There is something already in us and this stimulates a kind of feeding frenzy. It’s impossible to be unaffected by it. Especially for those at an impressionable age. We are making young people acculturated to violence. It affects the psyche and emotions. Society has done this and yet society doesn’t want to believe it. It seems like we don’t understand our own culture.”