“Sorry I was on my cell phone,” the cashier said. “My friend goes to Virginia Tech, and I can’t reach her.”
Being a southerner, I’m used to non-sequitur “check-out conversation.” Cashiers relay anecdotes about arthritic hands, failed diets, and even failed marriages in the time it takes to ring up a week’s worth of groceries. Once, a cashier gave me nutritional advice after ringing up too many bags of Cheetos — I now avoid her lane like Elizabeth Edwards avoids the “other America.” Twice, earnest bag boys presented the Gospel while loading the bags into my trunk. (After blowing my grocery budget, I apparently emit the quiet desperation of someone who needs to hear the “good news.”)
So, when the Blockbuster cashier told me he couldn’t reach his friend on the phone, I smiled politely and wondered if I’d remembered to return Charlotte’s Web. I hadn’t been near a television; my children were out of school early for testing, and evidently the biggest mass shooting in modern American history had happened while I waited in the car line.
“They catch the shooter?” another customer asked, causing me to realize this was no run-of-the-mill small talk. The scarce details of the massacre went right through me. Several of the people in line were hearing the news for the first time too, and we all stood in silence. Dozens killed. Engineering building. Bomb threats. My son detected our somber tones and didn’t ask for the M&M’s he’d spotted.
I went home to the comfort of my television, but found the experience a little like calling the police on a rotary phone — hopelessly slow and frustratingly inexact. Death totals varied, eye-witnesses struggled to understand the chaos, school officials sent out uninformative statements, and major networks broadcasted regularly scheduled soap operas.
Of course, this being 2007, I didn’t have to use a remote control to get my information. Blogs had a surfeit of details (campus maps, cell phone footage, President Bush’s response) which I waded through like it was my moral duty as a citizen. Within hours, Wikipedia had an entry on “The Virginia Tech Massacre.” By midnight, Drudge had fifteen red hyperlinks above the headline, such as: “He lined students against a wall, then executions began…‘Everyone started to panic and jumping out of the window’…” I clicked on each one, participating in the modern American’s search for understanding — not on my knees in prayer, but on high-speed wireless in a Technorati search.
The late Neil Postman criticized this misplaced value on information in a speech called, “Informing Ourselves to Death:”
…The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront — spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future…
Even as I write this essay, I’ve refreshed The Corner more than I care to admit, hoping to find that one detail that will make this whole scenario make sense. Postman ended his speech (sponsored, ironically, by IBM-Germany) by saying that computers
… will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge. They will give us instantaneous global communication, and tell us this is the way to mutual understanding. They will give us Virtual Reality and tell us this is the answer to spiritual poverty.
“Why’d a man shoot so many kids?” my son asked on the way home from Blockbuster, clutching his rabbit DVD tightly to his chest. I hadn’t been able to read or process the news at the time.
“I don’t know.” I pushed the gas pedal a little harder. Several hours later, he slept soundly under a Star Wars blanket, but I still sat in front of my iBook. I’ve pored over news reports, cried over blog entries, and gotten infuriated over an Internet hoax. But, I’m no closer to a suitable answer to his question.
Maybe, as Postman suggests, I should turn off my computer and search for answers somewhere else — like at the grocery store. After all, those bag boys are good at sensing quiet desperation, and I could stand to hear a little good news.
– Nancy French is the author of “Red State of Mind: How a Catfish Queen Reject Became a Liberty Belle.”