At 97 years old, he is, after a fashion, frozen in time. What he loves most, or so it seems to his son-in-law, is getting out of the Home and tooling through northwest Iowa countryside blessedly familiar to him. He loves remembering the stages of maturing corn and beans, seeing the harvest in action, reviewing what was, for him, his life.
These days he shakes his head at mammoth farm implements rerouting traffic as they lumber from field to field. Today, the only home for his brand of farming in museums. Corn and beans look taller maybe, but familiar; everything else is more than a little confusing. "Things sure have changed," he'll tell me every ten minutes or so as we drive through the country.
For the most part, he's lost the use of television. He watches only one station and nothing more than the news. Most television programming is beyond him these days--he doesn't catch on, and his hearing is awful. Then again, no one in Hollywood makes things for his demographic. He turns his flat-screen on and off on the side, where buttons are so well hidden they're nearly invisible. No matter. It's easier for him that way than having to fool with that blasted remote.
The Weather Channel was fascinating during Hurricane Matthew, and I got to thinking that maybe his life would be more interesting if he could watch the TWC. Shouldn't be that difficult, really, just a matter of his knowing the channel number. I could write it down in big bold numbers on a cardboard sheet so he'd know how to navigate over there. "And the animal channel," I told him. "And maybe the oldies--there's a whole network of oldies like I Love Lucy."
He wasn't buying. He wondered if he went to those channels whether he could ever find "six" back, his sole medium for news.
"No problem." I said.
Well, it was. The remote needed batteries, and operated so spastically that I would have tossed it and turned the set on manually myself. He'd long ago lost the card that indicated where he'd find TWC on his cable system, so I started hunting, and he started getting nervous.
"Can I get back again? Can I find the news yet?" he said. Several times he interrupted like that, more often than I care to admit or remember.
Once upon a time television offered only three choices--ABC, NBC, and CBS. That's what he remembers. Now there are hundreds.
I gave up, but when I left I made it clear that nothing had changed. All he had to do was put his finger on that little stop on the side of the flat-screen and the news would be there when it was supposed to be when he got back from supper.
Sometimes these days I feel like he does, practically powerless to monitor, even control, the rushing flood of information that streams into my life. Sometimes I tell myself I don't need 200 channels. Truth be told, I wouldn't mind going back to three networks and a whole lot less fireworks.
Zeynep Tufekci (seriously, that's the spelling), an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains that the kind of overload my father-in-law and I feel sometimes these days is its own kind of censorship.
Right now, there is too much information. In the 21st century, censorship doesn't work by withholding information. Censorship now works by flooding with information, by causing distraction, by causing confusion, by creating doubts and just this question mark and shadow so that you really can't figure out what's going on.There's more. "And to me, this is almost like the opposite of whistleblowing. This is whistle-drowning in confusion and distraction."
One of the reasons for my befuddlement (in addition to age) is the sheer number of "October surprises." There were dozens, so many that yesterday's simply got forgotten. Thousands upon thousands of Wikileaks, Prof. Tufekci says, don't make our lives easier, they prompt insanity. Endless accusations about Donald Trump end up making us stupified.
What we need, she says, is to trust some filtering agency, someone to do our managing for us, someone to tell us what's important and what's not.
And who will appoint that manager? I wondere. Will it be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?
I'm about to put our remote in the drawer and turn on the flat screen down here, if I could only figure out how to do that.