Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V041-06_cultentertainFA news item on Hong Kong television in early March shows four local boys in their late teens emerging for an all-night McDonalds and striding down the street abreast like characters in West Side Story. The news story is about sleep deprivation, in this case happily self-induced by these video gamers; they play way into the wee hours of the morning, sometimes getting only an hour of sleep, and they can do it for days on end.   They neglect their schooling and obviously can’t hold jobs; their life is almost totally absorbed by their favorite—only—form of entertainment.  At first thse guys seem odd and anomalous, changing color like chameleons in Hong Kong’s garish neon as they stride to their next gaming hangout. But maybe they are only a reflection of something more pervasive in modern culture.


For most of human history people had little time for what we call “entertainment”; they were too busy getting food into their mouths. [1]   They may have told some stories around the campfire and they did do a little painting in their caves, but even these activities had a more social and functional purpose than pure “entertainment.”   In fact, the French word for the more aimless human activity of entertainment sounds more apt— divertissement [2] ; it conveys the connotation of self-diversion, or distraction, apparently from something or things else that we might be doing with our limited time of existence.   Except for people whose job it is to be “entertaining” (and there are a lot of them), divertissement is pretty much non-productive activity.


So it may seem that I am leading up to another bitchy jeremiad against another feature of modern social life I find abhorrent.   Well, only partly.   The pursuit of entertainment, whether it is all-night video games, pulling slot handles at a casino, listening to an iPod for hours on end, or reading your one-thousandth romance novel, and of course, watching TV, is voluntary and usually harmless to others.   So I don’t give a rat turd about it; it’s your life. Well, not completely.   If your entertainment, or what it does to you, becomes a social concern—in economics terms this means has an externality, particularly a negative externality—then I do care.   If I have to pay your welfare, hospital bills, or police protection because you spend your life in un-productive divertissement , then it becomes my business.   So beware.


But presently I am more curious about the why of the matter. Why must we be so entertained?  Why do we need to be so diverted and distracted?  


Seems there are no simple answers.   First of all there is no easy dividing line here, and some of it is highly subjective. Is going fishing sport or entertainment?   Maybe watching a sport is entertainment and engaging in a sport is sport.   Going to the movies is being entertained, but it is also viewing an art form (sometimes) that can be educational and edifying.   Comedians entertain, but sometimes their material gives us a social perspective that other communication does not. And let’s face it, some entertainment may keep some people from getting into anti-social pursuits. Better to have some kid listening to his iPOD rather than breaking into my home. (Hey, wait a minute! Is that my iPOD he’s listening to?”)


But to be entertaining, to be a divertissement, it must contrast with and be a diversion or distraction from something else. So one concern, when people become obsessed with being entertained is that there might be something wrong with the rest of their lives. Sitting for hours in front of the TV and looking at other people’s lives, especially reality programming, may be an indication of not being able to face one’s own life. Another concern is that much entertainment is passive. Then again, such activity might be a welcome distraction for a shut-in with little live company and options for distraction.  


I think we may all need a little entertaining at times, some diverting activity that is unproductive and meaningless. I myself spent almost an hour the other day trying to perfect my impression of actor Christopher Walken. I think I got him down pretty well. It was entertaining, but useless; nobody is going to mistake me for Christopher Walken. I should be working on my impression of Brad Pitt.


OK, enough silliness; I was just trying to be a little entertaining there.   But seriously, while it seems there might be more social merit to entertainment than I initially thought, I think there is a problem when being entertained becomes the dominant activity in our lives.   Being entertained is passive, not active. I am always amazed when someone makes the statement “it helps pass the time,” as though time is a burden (Jesus, we don’t get that much of it, dude!).   It seems to me there must be a problem with your life if you are trying to pass what little time we really have. It’s like the card game of solitaire.  I am never sure what people get out of that game; it seems a waste of time.   Some people even try to cheat at solitaire. Who can they be cheating, the Jack of Diamonds?


By the way, just plain sitting and thinking, or meditating or contemplating, are more worthwhile activities (and they are intellectually “active) than bombarding ourselves with externally produced stimuli. It is a way of conversing with ourselves, of heightening our consciousness.  Some people, I think, are just plain afraid to be alone with themselves. More people should give thinking and self-reflection a chance; they might even find it entertaining. [3]


I worry entertainment might be the only satisfying activity in some people’s lives; that their work, their relationships, are what they wish to escape from.   That means, if you are always in need of being entertained, you need to take a good look at what, or whom , you are trying to divert and distract yourself from. Because if the passive side of your life is more satisfying than the active side, then you are not taking enough time to address your real problem(s), or you’ve just got your life bass ackwards. [4]

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.25.2007)

[1] Although they probably weren’t always as busy as popular understanding leads of to believe according to John Pfeiffer, “How Man Invented Cities,” Horizon , Autumn 1972, pp. 13-18

[2] The French must like their time divertissement, having perhaps the shortest work week and more vacation days than anybody else—something Monsieur Sarkozy aims to change. Right wing Americans believe this will give them less time to look down their aquiline noses at the American divertissement, which is making preemptive war on other countries.

[3] I exclude prayer from this list intentionally. But some people might want to argue with me about that.

[4] Or am I going dyslexic?