INTRODUCTION: The Fire That Burns Within Us
At the age of 50, I completely changed my life.
I was a recently divorced, very highly paid executive in the TV business. I lived in Midtown Manhattan in a large glass and steel building that towered over Rockefeller Center. My world was defined by meetings in other glass and steel towers, limos and town cars, expensive restaurants and dinner parties in other apartments not all that different from mine, and with people not all that different from me. I thought I was at the pinnacle of life; that things could not possibly be better. Who would want to live in any other way?
Then, shortly before my 50th birthday, I picked up The BBC as a client and I started to commute to Britain on a regular basis. And it was there, at The BBC, that I met Lisa Lambden. She was running the project that I was working on for The Beeb.
I went on to marry Lisa. We bought a small cottage in a little village in the English countryside, and that is where this story properly begins.
I have always been an early riser. Even if I go to bed at 2 a.m., I am still up at 5. I can’t help it. My father was in the army, and he would come into my room every morning at 5, turn on the lights, make the sounds of the bugle call of revile, sans bugle, and then shout, “Time to get up. Up Up UP! Out of the sack. Get those feet on the floor!” And that is how I started every day from the age of 5 or 6. Those early lessons live on, so to this day, my eyes pop open at 5, and there is nothing I can do about it.
On one particular morning, I was wide awake at 5 a.m., lying in bed, when I heard a peculiar noise just outside my window. A kind of gentle cooing, but quite loud and quite close.
It was a pigeon, a Wood Pigeon, and he was strutting back and forth on the peaked roof of our garden room, just below our bedroom window. He had a twig in his beak, and he seemed to be scoping out the neighborhood, perhaps for the local cat that always prowls the garden.
I watched in silence, as I might watch a Discovery or National Geographic nature show, and, after a rather interminable five or six minutes, at least in the world of television where everything happens quite quickly, the pigeon, carefully looking both ways to make sure all was clear, plunged headlong into a tall Hinoki Cypress tree that stands just at the edge of the garden room.
A few minutes later, the bird emerged from the dense and nearly impenetrable center of the tree, paused on the garden room roof, surveyed the surroundings, and took flight. A few more minutes and the pigeon returned to the roof, another twig in beak, and again, after a suitable pause and examination of the surroundings, plunged yet again into the tree.
I was able to watch this show every morning, day after day, for several weeks. The bird was busy building a nest. Soon, I assumed, there would be a whole family of new Wood Pigeons in my garden. The tenacity of the birds, their utter and unflinching dedication to the task of building a nest, first from twigs, and later from bits of string or twine or long grass that they found, God only knows where, astonished me.
How do they know what to do? I wondered. Who taught them how to make a nest? A quick visit to the website for the RSPB, or The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a most British institution, quickly answered my question. It is instinct. It is in their genes. They not only make nests, they make nests that are unique to their species. Generation after generation, year after year, these birds and their progeny that would soon hatch would also fly off somewhere, find a suitable place that was safe from cats and other predators, and go on to build a nest identical to the one in which they had been born. And so it would go on, year after year, generation after generation. It was their instinct that had allowed the species to survive. Without that, they would have vanished long ago.
The longer I watched, the more the question gnawed at me. How did they know? How did they know what twigs to gather, what grass to get? How did they know that spiders would not only feed their young, but would also provide sticky webs that would help hold their twigs and grass and string bits together like a kind of cement? Who told them that?
The answer, of course, is that no one told them a thing. No one had to teach them. They knew because of instinct. It is in their genes from the moment they are born.
Recently, we went to a small agricultural exhibition at Chatsworth, the massive stately home owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, but as with most of these massive stately homes, opened to the paying public. Apparently Dukedom does not pay the way it used to.
Walking the grounds of the agricultural exhibit, we came upon a donkey that had just given birth. The young foal was no more than a few hours old, and yet it was already up and walking and nosing
at the hay on the ground in search of something to eat. A collection at the chicken house showed the same thing; young chicks, just hatched were already busy pecking at the ground in search of food. Everywhere I looked, whether it was to birds or donkeys or horses or the innumerable sheep that live next to my cottage, or even insects—all living creatures seem to have an inherent and inborn instinct that tells them what to do.
My neighbor Tim is a beekeeper. Generation after generation of his bees continue to forage in the field, find their way to the sweetest nectar, and return to the hive to produce wax and honey and yet more bees. Their instincts provide them the knowledge they need for survival.
Conversely, take a human baby, just born; place it alone on the ground and see what happens. The answer is, of course, nothing. Left alone, it will die.
We humans are an incredibly weak species—fragile, delicate, and seemingly lacking in even the most basic instincts for survival that every other living thing seems to naturally possess. Why is that? How have we not only survived, but risen to dominate the planet and all other living things?
I am not the first person to ask these questions. They are as old as humanity. The ancient Greeks dealt with these very questions, in their own way, nearly 3,000 years ago. In the 8th Century BCE, the Greek poet Hesiod tells the story of Prometheus to help explain this dilemma.
Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were Titans, forerunners of the gods. They were given the task by Zeus, king of the gods, to go to earth and create from clay all living things. Epimetheus went first, creating all the animals of the land, insects and birds and creatures in the sea. Because he finished first, he was able to endow his creations with the best possible gifts for their survival: claws and beaks, razor sharp teeth and talons, speed and cunning, enormous strength and the ability to fly, and no doubt, though Hesiod does not mention it, instinct. He took them all.
When poor Prometheus was finished with his creation, man, there were no gifts left to offer. Man stood naked and frail and alone, just like that baby. Prometheus realized that his fragile creation had no chance of surviving even one day in a world filled with Epimetheus’ powerful and predatory creations. Mankind would be wiped out in an instant.
Prometheus went to Zeus and asked him if he might give mankind the most powerful thing that the gods possessed, and that was fire. But Zeus was protective of fire. Fire was far too powerful to give to man. With fire, man could forge metals, make weapons, perhaps one day become so powerful that he would not only attain dominance over all animals but perhaps might even challenge the gods themselves. Zeus said no.
So Prometheus instead snuck up to Mount Olympus, home of the gods, and stole fire and gave it to man, his creation, so that mankind might survive.
Zeus was greatly angered. For his transgression, for stealing the gift of fire and giving it to mankind, Zeus ordered that Prometheus be seized and chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where each day an eagle, symbol of Zeus, would tear out and eat his liver, and each night, the liver would regenerate, only to be torn out and eaten again the next day.
Prometheus would linger there, chained to the rock, until he was ultimately freed by Hercules, many years later.
The story of Prometheus, is, of course, a story—a myth, a legend. But it was a story with a very specific purpose. It helped the ancient Greeks answer questions that they otherwise had no answers to. Questions like “How did we get here?” or “How do we survive?” Those stories helped them explain a world which was otherwise overwhelming and incomprehensible to them. But the stories did more: they were also instructional.
Thus was the human psyche both stimulated by storytelling and inherently limited in the amount of storytelling we could be exposed to. Then, at the very end of the 20th Century, new technologies began to make access to compelling storytelling—done in ways never imagined before, and far more captivating—more and more available. The invention of moving pictures in the 1890s and the ongoing maturation of that technology meant that highly stimulating visual storytelling was now available for a far lower cost, and to the viewer, with far fewer complications. But even then, even in the 1930s, a family might go to the movies once a week for a total of about an hour a week of movie viewing. A lot more than in the past, but still manageable.
Then, in the 1950s, something terrible happened. What had been the wellspring of our ability to survive suddenly turned on us, and like a cancer, began to threaten our very existence. Like an addiction to any drug, the drive for ever more and ever better visual stories found itself a home, first with the advent of television, and then online. Today, the average person can spend an extraordinary eight hours a day or more watching stories in the form of movies, TV, or online video of some kind. What had once been an occasional exposure to a bit of sugar or morphine is now a gluttonous addiction, a mass orgy of never-ending stimulation and information being thrown at you continually.
What happens to a society that spends all of its time watching stories? What happens to a culture that is endlessly entertained, over and over again, hour after hour, day after day? What happens to a world that is addicted to endless watching? Our innate hunger for being told stories, once the key to our survival, has now become a helpless and hopeless addiction to a technology-driven, never-ending supply of limitless entertainment, all available at the touch of a button.
So, wired to want to hear more stories, just keep pushing that button, over and over and over and over. We can’t stop. And those stories are not just passive entertainment. Because of our thousands of years of experience, those stories are still teaching us something. We are still busy incorporating their lessons. But what exactly are they teaching us?
There is a school of thought amongst archaeologists that the Roman Empire collapsed because the Roman elite had inadvertently destroyed their own minds. The Romans built incredibly sophisticated plumbing systems. Almost all homes of the well-to-do had water piped into them. They had remarkably advanced plumbing, the likes of which would not be seen in Europe for another 1500 years. But their plumbing had a flaw. Their pipes were made of lead, and so it is possible that, over time, the Romans slowly but surely poisoned themselves. Lead poisoning leads to slow but certain destruction of the brain.
We don’t have lead pipes bringing water into our homes any longer, but we do have fiber optic pipes bringing content. And it is entirely possible that we too are poisoning our minds, just with a different poison.
In the next 200 pages, you’ll learn how our ancient dependence on storytelling has morphed into a deadly addiction to an almost never-ending stream of entertainment that has warped our world, our society, and our individual lives in ways we never imagined possible. But you’ll also learn how you can take back control of your world and your life using the very same media that are destroying us.