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Corn: We’re insulated from the heat, but also from real life

POSTED: July 30, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Even as recently as the 1960s, most public and private spaces in the South did not have air conditioning.

We survived and even thrived without it, yet today it is hard to avoid the cold clammy air of summer indoors. Never mind that we are living through one of the hottest seasons on record, many of us have spent the better part of it with our fingers numb from the cold of our offices, where the tyranny of the majority demands a thermostat set at 70 degrees.

This development is troublesome, not merely for the discomfort it creates, but because it removes us that much further from the natural world around us. In any populated area of the South today the old sounds of summer are gone. The cicadas, katydids and songbirds are completely drowned out by the mechanized whining of a million air compressors.

Time was that human life was grounded by traditional ways closely linked to the rhythms of the seasons, yet our age is defined by the obsessive discarding of tradition and the further detachment of man from not only the natural world, but from even his own profitable creations. For example, the suburban construct has now swamped the northeast quadrant of Georgia, from Gainesville and Dawsonville all the way south to Atlanta proper.

The century-old pastoral landscape dotted with small town squares has been quickly overrun by plastic-sided cookie cutter subdivisions. This new artifice is founded on the separation of the suburban resident from the agriculture that provides him sustenance as well as from the big city on which he depends for his upkeep.

In this setting the benefits of the metropolis are cherished, including an industrial job market with its high salaries and variety of work, easy access to shopping, good roads, hospitals, well-staffed schools and responsive police forces.

All these benefits are guarded by the suburban community, while at the same time the removal of neighborhoods from the economy on which they depend isolates the resident from the environmental degradation, blighted landscapes and masses of human poverty that are inherent to any industrial city. That isolation makes it possible to go about the business of urban life, enjoying all its benefits, yet ignoring its unsavory fruits.

The automobile has made all this possible, of course, and we are the only society in the world that has centered middle class life on this vehicle and its declining fuel sources.

It is often true in civilization that changes in the physical foreshadow those of the spiritual or philosophical sort. In our time, total isolation of the body from the natural world through climate control has preceded the seclusion of the mind through distraction.

"Virtual reality" is an excellent description of the new totality of multimedia entertainment. It is impossible to foretell its long-term results. The benefits of speedier communications have already yielded spectacular improvements in work efficiency, but the portable nature of the same devices used for communication, means they now carry the potential for ceaseless distraction. Whether the benefits of the new media outlets outweigh their costs depends largely on how we employ them.

One already apparent result of the new sedentary life they seem to induce is an explosion in childhood obesity. To be sure, there are other factors creating this phenomenon, but it is undeniable that a region which had a war on hunger a generation ago now battles the blubbery accumulations of children glued to terminal screens all day.

Much enthusiasm has attended the increased "connectivity" in which we now live. But as Professor Tom Nichols eloquently described in The Times, there was a time when greater isolation meant more attention to one's fellows, and the cultivation of conversation. Those who grew up in the rural South of the early 20th century talk at length about the deprivation and hardship of that life, but one rarely hears them describe it as lonely.

Today, despite more numerous encounters, loneliness and the depression that accompanies it appear epidemic. It seems that a greater circle of persons to talk with means people actually listen less and spend more time trying to be heard.

The upshot is an ongoing social frustration and a shrinking number of reliable familiars with whom to share one's thoughts, feelings and experiences.

All this is to say that media always acts as an intermediary between human beings, and thus is always a distortion of the real persons using them. No media can ever duplicate the intonation, inflection, volume and bodily expression possible in a face-to-face meeting.

And while enthusiasm for 3D film, the Internet and graphic video games may be at an all time high, we may do well to note the potential of these pastimes to sink the mind of the nation in a sea of thoughtless digital diversion.

Real life is still going on, and in case you haven't been outside much, it is my duty to inform you that it has been a rather warm summer.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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