At around 11:30 on New Year's Eve, a hundred or so people gathered in front of the fire station in Cape May Point, N.J., equipped, as advised by the Cape May Point millennial planning commission, with flashlights and noisemakers. At midnight the members of the borough council loosened a halyard to lower a lighted ball--it was about the size of a beachball--from the top of the fire station's flagpole. The ball made its way slowly down 25 feet to the sidewalk, although you couldn't see it very well for the last half of its journey, as its lights had gone out. Reportedly, the extension cord had pulled out of its socket.
What a happy feeling it was to wake up on New Year's Day having watched that ball drop, and not the other one. To have watched not a single second of ABC's 25 hours of blather; to have skipped every little bit of CNN's 100 hours of "coverage"; to have failed to catch even one thoughtful moment of PBS's 25 hours of important talk; to have missed the report from Roswell, N.M., on "Fox 2000"; to have neglected to observe the opening of London's Millennium Dome, David Letterman's special "Late Show," Jay Leno's special monologue, the premiere of Steven Spielberg's "The Unfinished Journey," and President Clinton's chat with the kids on Nickelodeon.
I know a fair number of people who spent the designated millennial New Year's in this fashion, purposely cut off from the rest of the world, enjoying themselves and their friends and taking pleasure in being disconnected from all that we are told we must be connected to. This is no big deal in itself, but there is something larger going on here, I think. More and more people are reaching the understanding that they need not acquiesce in--serve as product for--a commercial culture they find increasingly intrusive and annoying. They can disconnect. They can, in their own lives at least, kill the beast.
This is partly a matter of conscious rejection. Some disconnecters pull the plug in aesthetic rebellion to the leveling triumph of the commercial culture over all values other than the commercial. Some do so in revolt against the morally degraded, and degrading, nature of the stuff that the enter-info-tainment industry offers.
But for many, disconnecting is more a gradual, unplanned turning away from a mega-media outpouring that they have come to find at once overwhelming and underwhelming--the first in its endlessness and ubiquity, the second in its necessity or even desirability.
Do you remember when people who wished to consider themselves informed watched the network evening broadcast news every day? They did so because the broadcast presented a reasonably intelligent and coherent synopsis of each day's important events. The broadcasts no longer deliver anything that remotely resembles a coherent news report. Indeed, the anchors no longer even speak in sentences. They utter fragments, and soon they will be down to exclamations: "Bang!" or "Wow!" or "%$!&!" as appropriate for each chunk of video.
There is no reason to waste time on this, and as the network bosses know, more and more people have figured that out. The same thing is happening in the entertainment side of television, in movies, in popular music, and in print news, all of which deservedly suffer from steadily declining shares of adult consumers.
People are also discovering how consuming it is to be connected, and largely how pointless. Last week, I received 179 e-mail messages. About 20 of them were of any value. The first day you carry around a switched-on cell phone, you fancy yourself rather impressive, in your connectedness, having a conversation on the cab ride from the airport. The second day you realize that you could have waited until you got to the hotel to learn that your hot water heater was shot and that your boss wants you to respond to the memo he e-mailed you while you were in the air. The third day, you realize that the cabdriver thinks you are a jerk, and he is on to something.
The important question is whether the disconnecters will realize that if enough people kill the beast in their own lives, the beast will be dead everywhere; that's when disconnectedness will become a movement. The strength of such a movement could be fantastic. All of it--the TV, the Internet, the cell phone, the Talk-Miramax-
Disney-ABC-Time-Warner-Microsoft machine--exists only because we turn it on. If enough of us turn it off, it is gone.
Think of it: It is in your power to plunge Bill Gates into poverty, to send Peter Jennings off to "Good Morning, Saskatchewan," to rid the world of Disney-licensed products, to see Martha Stewart and Jerry Springer reduced to talking only to each other.
Michael Kelly is editor in chief of National Journal.