Having quoted Michael Bywater's magnificent "Lost Worlds" a couple of times in this blog (indeed, if you glance to the bottom right of the page you'll see it recommended amongst the dozen or so others that I suggest everyone with even a passing interest in being alive in the world read as soon as reasonably convenient) I was thoroughly delighted when he took the time to email me last week and mention that his new book, Big Babies, was about to be released. "That", I thought, "is a great deal more effective than the bloody silly customers who bought this book also bought recommendation engine with which Amazon was so chuffed it issued a probably spurious patent (SplinteredChannels) on the idea". (And if any other authors are considering adopting this marketing strategy on a wider basis they should know that I immediately bought a copy for myself and will probably have picked up half a dozen more before my Xmas shopping is all done.)
The argument of the book is summarised here (Telegraph) and is that western adults have allowed themselves to become infantilised through submission to a chance concatenation of technology, highly sophisticated media manipulation and the overweening apparatus of the state. It is a compelling thesis - disturbingly so, really, since one of its central tenets is that we have allowed ourselves to become too easily beguiled by barely plausible lies.
Big Babies suffers a little from what we might call the Long Tail dilemma - that while the core argument could have been expressed well enough in twenty pages, no-one prints or buys twenty-page books. (Scott Adams faced much the same problem with his almost-Nobel-winning but only one-page-long Unified Theory of Finance.) Yet like Lost Worlds, Big Babies contains innumerable gems. Probably my very favourite of all (which has little or no bearing on digital media and you may wish to skip ahead to the next paragraph, which does, if that's what you came here to read about) is a succinct demolition of the fallacious defence so often put forward for ID cards: "the old saw 'the innocent have nothing to hide' fails to persuade us," he writes, "because it is a category mistake. Having something to hide is not contingent on guilt but on autonomy."
But it is on the subject of what the author dubs the Age of Distraction that the argument is both most compelling and most germane to my own professional interests, ranging from television to TiVo to Second Life and the iPod to show the utter atomisation of media and then explaining (again succinctly) the root of this phenomenon:
"It may even be that distraction is the primary discretionary need. Once we have filled our bellies and got warm, after all, what do we do next?...the boundary, it seemed to me, blurred between work and distraction: both exist to keep our minds off the central existential problem facing intelligent life on this planet which is, once again, that once we've filled our bellies and got warm there's absolutely nothing else to do."
Perhaps this is indeed the framework for thinking about the next stages of media evolution - that as the west moves increasingly towards a leisure economy for adults, and as advertisers (and therefore media owners) in any case concentrate increasingly on targeting idle youth, the primary function of media will not be to inform its audience but to distract them from the disappearance of anything recognisable as work.