Cosmic Bowling, the White Flash,
and the Death of Tranquillity

by Peter Donnelly
March 1997

In one twelve-hour period recently I got two pieces of news that depressed me.

One was the discovery that Victoria's last remaining quiet pub, the Snug at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, had abandoned its longstanding no-music policy.

The other was a newspaper article about the introduction of "cosmic bowling" to local alleys. This new phenomenon, hailed as the salvation of a declining pastime, features flashing lights and pounding rock music designed to appeal to the under-40 crowd.

Why do I find these events so disturbing? Apart from their small but significant effect on my own life, it's because they are symptoms of the appalling extent to which our society has become hooked on visual and acoustic stimulation.

I have enjoyed going bowling occasionally with family and friends. It is, or was, a simple pleasure. The rumbling of the balls on the hardwood, the crash of pins, the cheers and groans of the players -- these were sounds enough for me. Similarly the Snug was a haven where people-watching, the crackling of the fire, and above all stimulating talk with friends was entertainment enough.

But I am a dinosaur, it seems. While I quietly ruminate in my swamp, humanity is rapidly being pushed along an evolutionary path -- perhaps devolutionary would be the better word -- that makes me feel like a relic of another age. The species is turning to a diet of artificial stimuli, and my habitat is rapidly disappearing.

Have you seen much television lately? Have you noticed the phenomenon of the White Flash? If you haven't, I invite you to watch for a half-hour and count the number of times the screen dissolves in a flashbulb effect, amidst the frantic succession of images that now make up not only the commercials but even most of the programming. Look also for the flaming explosion that inevitably takes place somewhere in movie trailers. Turn on a children's cartoon, close your eyes, and listen to the onslaught of violent sound effects that accompanies every scene. And in those annoying commercials with the lurching camera, count the number of people walking quickly across the foreground -- shadowy figures like tigers in the grass, whose only dramatic function is to signal danger to the brain and keep you on the alert.

Thirty or forty years ago, television was called "the vast wasteland" because of its lack of intellectual content. But the TV of 1997 makes the programs of those days seem like the work of Plato and Shakespeare on a good day. Content has been almost entirely driven out by sensory stimulation: stroboscopic lights, jarring sound effects, images that remain for no more than a fraction of a second. Laugh tracks tell us when to feel amused, and non-stop music -- marring even the otherwise fine documentary work of people like Ken Burns -- tells us that we should be feeling something, even if the producers are not sure what. Television no longer even aims at the lowest common denominator of the intellect; it has abandoned the cerebrum entirely and turned to the more primitive parts of the brain.

The really scary thing about this is what it is doing to young people. When even "good" children's programming like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego relies on ear-pounding and eye-dazzling effects to keep the viewer's attention, young people can't be blamed for thinking that book-learning is a drag. When every television drama, documentary, and interview is accompanied by non-stop music, they get the message that words and ideas and emotions have insufficient meaning by themselves -- that their impact must be augmented with a programmed response. When indeed almost every experience in life is accompanied by music, television, or the roar of an internal combustion engine, they come to fear quiet as an unwelcome emptiness. Subject to a constant diet of stimulation, they are learning to equate tranquillity with boredom.

Apart from its effect on the individual spirit, what can the death of silence and tranquillity mean for the well-being of our society? Can the social fabric remain whole when all of us are too wrapped up in our "personal stereos" to converse with a stranger, or even with a friend? Or when we have altogether stopped being doers in favour of "being entertained"? Or when many among us are so numbed by external stimuli that we have forgotten -- or never learned -- how to feel?

Perhaps I'm being too bleak. Maybe I should stop watching television altogether, and go down to the Snug for an (almost) quiet drink. Oops, I forgot -- now they've got a television up on the wall too.

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