Are We Having Fun Yet? Maybe Too Much Rico Linns

If you got all the way through the preceding article, congratulations. Millions of Americans--particularly young ones--probably couldn't. And besides, who has time for some treatise on the entertainment economy when Sonic the Hedgehog and Beavis & Butt-head are beckoning?

Grant us another couple of minutes, though, to ponder the social implications of an economy dominated by fun. Casinos, theme parks, sports stadiums, and newfangled cable-TV systems are popping up all across the land. But how is this entertainment boom reshaping our spiritual landscape?

Social critics have fretted for years about the corrosive effect of too much entertainment. Television, they argue, has already turned us into a nation of empty vessels--reliant on TV for the emotional and intellectual sustenance that families and society used to provide. Now comes a new generation of televised experiences, not to mention out-of-home amusements that repackage reality in ever more stimulating ways. Will entertainment rob us of whatever imagination we have left?

"KIND OF ADDICTING." Not according to multimedia evangelists such as Trip Hawkins. "People seem to think we prefer sitting passively in front of the television," says Hawkins, whose software company, 3DO Co., has developed technology for interactive TV. "My opinion is we simply haven't had the alternative." Give viewers the means to interact with the tube, he argues, and you open up new vistas.

Other observers, though, worry that entertainment is coming under the domination of a few Brobdingnagian companies, who by their sheer pervasiveness will smother other voices and turn fun into a homogenized experience. "As long as the system is dominated by a handful of major players, the schlock will vastly outweigh the good stuff," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University.

That doesn't mean entertainment will stop being seductive. Quite the contrary. Miller says more and more movies and TV shows are relying on the kind of thrilling but unchallenging effects that make roller coasters popular. "Look at the very phrase Information Highway," says Miller. "Being on a highway is a mindless experience. You're usually hurtling home from work."

Other, more insidious, forms of entertainment are using similar thrills to lure new customers. Big casinos, for example, are now styling themselves as exciting family resorts. Visit Circus Circus, and your iids can ride a roller coaster while you ride a roulette wheel. Investor Richard E. Rainwater says gambling is so successful because "it's kind of addicting." No kidding. But will the family that does Vegas together eventually do Gamblers Anonymous together, too?

If that's not worrisome enough, gaming could someday link up with interactive TV in what would truly be an unholy alliance. Your local cable company would transmit sports scores, statistics, and games to your TV on demand. And you would place your bet either by phone or by pressing keys on a remote control. Home gambling makes even entertainment executives queasy. But they acknowledge it could be one of the major new businesses created by the Information Highway.

JURASSIC LANDSLIDE. Such chilling prospects aren't the only reasons to question an entertainment economy. The gaming industry likes to point out that it will generate 500,000 new jobs in the next decade. That's no small feat. But many of these jobs are unskilled and low-paying--cocktail waitresses and parking valets, for example. And they don't come without a price: Entertainment is further tilting the U.S. economic base away from investments that enhance productivity.

There's a certain futility in worrying about what entertainment will do to America. Consumers have already voted with their pocketbooks, and Jurassic Park is the winner by a landslide. Americans spent about $340 billion on entertainment and recreation in 1993. That compares with $270 billion in spending--public and private--on elementary and secondary education. In 1980, those figures were roughly equal.

It's not necessarily a crime that America spends more on fun than on educating its children. Years of well-intentioned failure tell us that dollars don't automatically translate into scholars. But it's a sure sign of how our priorities have changed.

One more sign: The rise in entertainment spending has coincided with a dramatic decline in personal savings. In 1980, Americans saved an average of 7.9% of their disposable personal income. In 1993, they saved just 4%. Social critic Neil Postman asked in his 1985 book whether, as a nation, we were Amusing Ourselves to Death. Nine years later, the surging entertainment economy is proof that we're very much alive. The more pertinent question is: Are we laughing our way into an economic and spiritual poorhouse?

Mark Landler covers the media.

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