Tags: Jean | Dominique | Bauby

Butterflies in the Info-Age Diving Bell

Monday, 30 Jun 2008 11:57 AM

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Everyone eligible to vote should read “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” or see the movie. The analogy to that transfixing, true narrative is nightmarish.

The Narrative

A French journalist by the name of Jean-Dominique Bauby, or “John-Do” to his familiars, as translated in English, was paralyzed in 1996 by a massive stroke. His brain stem, through which consciousness commands action, was nullified. The sole, remaining, workable muscle was in his left eyelid. He was doomed within what medical science calls “the locked-in syndrome.”

“Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move.” Those are his words, which he conveyed, letter by letter, by blinking his eyelid as the alphabet was read aloud. At two minutes a word and 200,000 blinks later, he wrote this exquisite book about “my diving bell [from which] my mind takes flight like a butterfly.”

Shortly after his best-selling jewel was published, John-Do perished. The film is a masterwork, now on DVD subtitled and translated. Stay away from all this if unprepared for your cheeks drenched in tears and your spirit sent soaring with hope and determination to make better use of what’s left of your own life.

The Analogy

The American society is today entrapped within a diving bell of sorts. In colossal irony, this imprisonment is constructed not of metal but of intangible messages so numerous they have exploded far beyond possible enumeration.

The very thing technology was supposed to bring to the democracy — uninhibited access to information, enabling everyone to reach informed decisions affecting their own governance — has become not a historic liberation but, instead, a near-impenetrable prison of the opposite effect.

The irony is that, surrounded by limitless, affordable access to interminable information of every sort, Americans are much like little children let loose in an infinite candy store where a penny can buy any, or every, sweet.

Think, in your own life, where all these incessant messages emanate: radio, television, newspapers, magazines, movies, DVDs and of course the infinite of all informational infinities — the beckoning, mesmerizing, enthralling Internet.

Anything the libido desires or the conscience tolerates is available at the touch of a button, the press of a thumb. So many choices. Which buttons to push?

Informed, wise decisions are Information Age butterflies of freedom. Those beautiful creations cannot leave their cocoons if inhabitants of the Information Age diving bell opt for the worst information available or withdraw into the twilight of willful ignorance and non-involvement, their personal diving bells of self-gratification within the greater diving bell.

Unless those butterflies can form and then be free to make their contributions to a Democratic republic, the Information Age locked-in syndrome is complete.

The Nightmare

Even as presidential and congressional elections bear down upon us, the Information Age diving bell thickens with every added galloping gigabyte. From all directions, noble and vile, information billows and swirls.

A republic, the most robust yet the most fragile of social constructs, is utterly dependent upon its citizenry to make informed, wise decisions. Without that — whether deprived by tyranny or by neglect — the republic fails, its people perish.

John-Do could not escape his diving bell. Americans can still penetrate the Information Age diving bell they are in. No longer is there a mass-media monopoly. There is now a variety of news sources for those willing to seek them amid the clutter, but the will has to be there, the effort has to be made.

Unless Americans care enough about this republic to elevate their curiosities beyond their own self-indulgences and exercise prudence in the messages they opt to consider, then all can be lost — in the blink of an eyelid.

John L. Perry, a prize-winning newspaper editor and writer who served on White House staffs of two presidents, is a regular columnist for Newsmax.com.

Read John Perry's columns here.

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