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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Universalization of Experience

Over the last few evenings, I have watched the three-part National Geographic documentary series Guns, Germs and Steel.  The series, based on the work of Prof. Jared Diamond, seeks to explain the causes of inequality among nations.  At the conclusion of the third and final episode, Prof. Jared finds himself in an area of Africa infested by malaria.  In a hospital where seven children can die per day from the disease, he visits some of those in deep stages of the illness.  He becomes distraught over what he sees.  He says simply in explanation that there’s a difference between knowing something intellectually and experiencing it firsthand.  It seems to me that this has been an important side effect of mass communication for a long time.  From radio, film, TV, surround sound, and computers—all strive to make the communication experience direct and increase its focus and impact.  That is why it is a safe prediction that one day 3D will be perfected.  Beyond entertainment lies a much more serious outcome of communication development.  It will serve to bring into our presence wherever we may be the full reality of a situation no matter how distant or far away.  If the sights, smells, and sounds of a remote malaria hospital could actually exist in my living room, would my attitudes and even priorities be affected by this holistic experience?  The universalization of experience promises to greatly diminish the room for callous excuses.  Far from being an avenue of escape, mass communication will eventually paint us into a corner and make flights from responsibility more difficult and reprehensible.

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