Deciding to go an entire weekend without exposure to the mass media requires planning. It meant avoiding movies, nightclubs, and parties as a form of evening entertainment. It meant not watching or listening to the weekend baseball games or chatting with friends via email. Knowing it was coming, I planned ahead. I invited a group of friends over for a night of cards and board games. I also chose to inform my friends of the project, so that they would understand why things went the way they did. Normally, we would have music playing in the background when we play cards, so I wanted to let people know ahead of time why the music wasn’t on.
The first thing I noticed about not having the music on in the background was that people were able to talk more easily, without having to raise their voices to be heard. The conversations ranged from plans for the end of the semester to current movies to politics and the war in Iraq. The surprise was that the discussions were so far ranging. We have often had these informal game nights, but rarely has the conversation been serious. Generally, it stays superficial, dealing with local events or current movies. We also had a lengthy discussion about the assignment and its implications. Most of my friends believed the assignment to be impossiblee. Initially, almost all of them claimed they could go without media influence for a weekend without even thinking about it. So I asked them specifically what types of things they would do to keep themselves entertained, what they would do for the weekend.
Some of the women mentioned reading a book and were surprised to hear that books were included in the disallowed materials. Some of the men talked about playing Frisbee or having a barbeque, but had to be reminded that the mass media ban included music. Someone else suggested just spending the entire weekend playing World of War Craft or just hanging out and watching television. He obviously didn’t get the concept. Finally, people began to understand the difficulty involved. One girl said she couldn’t imagine going the entire weekend without her iPod, especially while she was exercising. Another said he uses his email as his primary means of communication and could never go two days without checking his email. I agreed that living without internet access might be the hardest part of the weekend. I was wrong.
Friday night actually ended up being very easy and fun. I had lots of interesting discussions with my friends and we relaxed without the constant drone of the media. On Saturday, it became much more difficult. Saturday morning I had errands to run and hoped in the car to be off and running. When the radio came on, I remembered the assignment. Okay, I thought, how hard can this be? I had to go to the post office and a couple stores. It’s a beautiful spring day. I’ll just roll the window down and enjoy the sunshine. Instead, I got to listen to my engine. I think it needs an oil change. And at every stop light, I got to hear everyone else’s music. It was overwhelming to hear all the noise and chaos that I usually miss, driving around with the windows up and the stereo on. I also found it nerve-wracking. The noise of tires on pavement and brakes grinding as cars stop and go, combined with the incoherent mixture of music emanating from almost every car on the street was distracting and irritating.
Then, I noticed that every store I entered violated the terms of the assignment. Sure, most of it was elevator music, but each store had music. Several also had ads played over the loudspeaker while I was shopping. Most of the ads were self-promotions for the store I was in at the time, but I was surprised to discover how often we are bombarded with background noise and advertising that we just ignore because it is part of our every day background. By the time I was headed home again, I was acutely aware of the noise that the media adds to every day. Finally, I headed home again, looking forward to some quiet. Imagine my surprise when I pulled into my driveway and heard birds singing. Now, I knew I had birds in my neighborhood. The evidence is on my car on a regular basis, but this time I actually heard them and when I looked I could see the robins cavorting nearby.
Saturday afternoon I decided to devote to studying, and again, I was unpleasantly surprised to discover how often I rely on the media. Normally, when I study, I will have music playing on my computer in the background or the television on. Without it, I found my room to be almost too quiet. There was no indication of the passage of time and I found myself stopping too often to look at the clock. Time seemed to drag on and on. And, while I was studying, I found that I wasn’t getting much accomplished. It was as though the background noise helped push me along and without it, I was floundering. The afternoon seemed to last forever. At about 3 p.m., friends called to ask about dinner plans. Usually, we go out to eat at least once on the weekend as a way to socialized and relax, but I wanted to stay within the confines of the assignment. That’s when I decided that going out to eat was not an option. Every restaurant, like every store, plays some sort of music to “enhance the dining experience”. Many of the places we frequent are also sports bars and have a dozen televisions scattered throughout the dining room. With all the no-nos, we decided it would be better if we decided to make food rather than go out to eat.
The results were surprising. Everyone chipped in and we went to the grocery store and bought food. Then, we grilled out and prepared our food. What was surprising at first was how much less expensive it was than going out to dinner. We were able to make steak dinners with fresh salads for about one-third of what we would have spent to go out for steak. We also had fun doing it. Everyone contributed to the food preparation and during the bustle of getting dinner ready, we talked and laughed. We also found that we ate healthier. There were no fried appetizers and unhealthy desserts, except for the roasted marshmallows. After dinner, we decided to play cards again as it had been fun the night before and we were still operating on the mass media ban.
Again, the results surprised me. One friend suggested that we do this regularly. Another commented on how often the media impact on our lives made us forget to communicate with one another. A third observed that the availability of mass communications seemed to be keeping people from actually talking to one another. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed. On a normal weekend, I would have gone to a movie or listened to music on Friday and Saturday evenings. Neither of those activities is conducive to talking. Sure, we would usually have coffee after the movie and talk about the movie, but the media would dominate what we did and what we talked about.
After a late night Saturday, I slept in much of Sunday and then began to think about what this assignment had taught me. Sitting down to begin typing it, I was tempted, but resisted, the urge to check my email instead of writing. I found that without the interruption of the things I “needed” to do on the internet, my homework assignments got done much faster. I was able to concentrate on what I was doing and I believe the quality of my work improved as well. I did not find myself needing to go back and read over what I had already written. I did not lose my place as often and I was not distracted. I finished my homework in half the time I would normally expect.
There were definitely things I missed because of the attempt to eliminate the mass media from my life for the weekend. I enjoy baseball and missed all the games I would normally have watched over the weekend. Because I didn’t watch the news or read a newspaper, I also had no idea whether my team won or lost. I also missed out on the negativity on the nightly news. I did not hear depressing news about the economy or the war. Instead of having someone tell me what to think and how to feel, I had people ask my opinion on world events and national tragedies. We discussed the shootings at Virginia Tech and what we would do if it happened here. We talked about job prospects and how the economy affects us. We discussed the price of gasoline and what should be done about it. In general, without the hounding of the mass media, we communicated.
Though there were some significant positives about this assignment, it is not something I would want to do all the time. I like feeling informed and I like music. I found that when I am driving, I am less angry when I have music on and am less distracted by the noise of the road around me. I like music or baseball in the background while I am studying to help me pass the time, but I also like the concept of turning the music off so that people can talk without having to shout to be heard. And, I like that though my friends and I talked about the assignment over the weekend, our discussions were in no way limited to the day’s headlines or the movie of the week.
Ultimately, this assignment made me more aware of the impact of mass media on my life by making me see where it is every day and how hard it is to avoid it. Technically, I failed to complete the assignment under its specifications because I still had life to live. The assignment pointed out that people are unable to avoid the media impact while shopping and often while at work. It showed me when I like having the noisy background around to eliminate other noise, like when I am driving, and the things that I miss, like the singing birds. All in all, I found the assignment to be challenging and eye-opening. I will not repeat it in total, but I will use some of the things I’ve learned so that I can better enjoy my friendships and my mind.