|Twenty years ago, the late Neil Postman published the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, a kind of successor to Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. This was in the Reagan era, before we found out what kind of atrocities were going on behind the scenes during that regressive regime, and when the arrival of 1984 spiked a burst of literalist enthusiasm for bashing George Orwell’s satirical and cautionary novel named after that year. Postman’s thesis is that it wasn’t Orwell who had successfully foreseen the dangers of the 1980s — rather it was Aldous Huxley, who described in Brave New World a future state much closer in substance to the one we found ourselves in, in 1984, and still find ourselves in today.
The book is a history of public discourse — human conversation and exchange of ideas, knowledge and beliefs — and how radically it has been changed by the prevailing media of the day, from the oral media that prevailed until medieval times, to the print media that succeeded it until the last century, to the broadcast media that prevail today. When I first read it many years ago, I dismissed Postman as a luddite with an exaggerated concern about the broadcast media, media that most intelligent people don’t take seriously, and hence don’t worry about much. Postman’s most interesting writing, n my opinion, was about education, where the technophobia that drove much of his work held less sway. It’s only in the light of the subsequent explosion of the Internet, and the events of 9/11, that both Huxley and Postman seem more prophetic than they did in the less brave new world of 1984.
The reason Postman was so enamoured with the era of the print media is that they are able to impress people in three different ways: by being entertaining, informing, or useful. In that sense they are like the previous oral media, except that they have a longer memory, a more permanent record. By contrast, today’s broadcast media have a child’s attention span, and essentially no memory or record at all — recording capability notwithstanding, most broadcast content is not convenient to search or retrieve, and content-wise it is much less substantial and infinitely less durable than written discourse:
The telegraph [and subsequent broadcast media] made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing, on a large scale, irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. Telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest and curiosity.
Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, remarked during the construction of the first underwater trans-Atlantic cables that “[the widely dispersed areas connected by telegraph] may have nothing important to communicate; perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the British Princess has the whooping cough”. Irrelevant, because it has no bearing on things important to us here and now, impotent, because it is unactionable, and incoherent, because it is devoid of sufficient context to give it meaning.
As a result, with its powerful visual appeal in the broadcast media, the tsunami that killed 150,000 has been enormous news for weeks, yet the fact that 4,500,000 children every year from obsolete diseases due to lack of access to inexpensive medicines that could prevent and treat them, has received almost no attention in the broadcast media. And the media were likewise unable to galvanize any action in response to the known threat of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which killed five times as many as the recent tsunami, nor has it yet galvanized action in the current ominously similar situation, which will yield almost inevitably similar results in Darfur. These dramas built up to crisis too slowly, and were far too subtle and complex to capture in thirty-second ‘stories’ and quick photo collages. The atrocities at Abu Ghraib only became news when photos were smuggled out, and it was the photos — the media coverage of the atrocities, not the atrocities themselves or their complicated, inexplicable cause — that were ‘news’.
And the video of the events of 9/11 was electrifying, resulting in a national obsession in the US media and the general population that has lasted ever since, although its death toll was less than the number of teenagers who die in drunk driving accidents in the US every year, less than the number of deaths from domestic violence in the US every 18 months, less than the number of deaths from flu alone in the US every month — any of which would be much easier and cheaper to prevent a recurrence of. But faced with these unactionable and incoherent images, Americans allowed their opportunistic and unelected president to use it as an excuse for a bloody, destructive, trillion dollar war on a country that was not even involved in the attack. As with the tsunamis, the media obsessed after 9/11 with the precise death toll, and in their collective impotence did not see it as their function to question the outrageous and absurd American response, or to answer, to this day, the question why it happened. The media incoherence after 9/11 had hysterical Americans stocking up on duct tape, and meekly allowed an outpouring of global sympathy for America to be turned into a global loathing for its president and disdain for the people so dumbed down by these media that they handed him a chance to compound his colossal errors for another four years.
Postman goes on:
You may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would otherwise not have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?
He even prophesied the Bush success formula: “The dishonor that shrouds Nixon results not from the fact that he lied but that on television he looked like a liar. The alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth, or, even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying. Credibility refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness conveyed by the actor/reporter. [And through the political commercial] we are no longer permitted to know who is best at being President, but only whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.”
“The public” he says “has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference. Huxley believed that it is far more likely that Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled. It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensate to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions.” He goes on to say that commercials use the “unambiguously didactic” literary device of the pseudo-parable (stories of people becoming popular or successful by using the product), not to provide information about the product, but rather to tell the consumer how to live his or her life.
The book also provides extensive and compelling evidence that pre-broadcast media Americans, throughout the entire nineteenth century, were the most informed people, and, not coincidentally, the most practiced at exchange of ideas and public discourse in the history of civilization (due in part to the enormous number, variety and popularity of newspapers, broadsheets, pamphlets and public lecture halls), and that, under the influence of the new, context-free, incoherent, unactionable and fragmented modern media, they are now among the least informed, and the least practiced at public discourse.
That was in 1984, when the Internet was in its infancy. Is the proliferation of blogs and other new written media in the past decade a reaction against this incoherence and absence of context? Was Postman unduly pessimistic in seeing the computer as just another ‘entertainment screen’ masquerading as a literate medium?
I’d say the audience on that is still out. Blogs and other public forums are clearly filling a void that the broadcast media of the day have created, and allowing a small but growing minority to rediscover the skill of written exposition, and to engage in an awkward but occasionally remarkable online public discourse. And at the same time even newer media (notably the ubiquitous cellular telephone) are reinvigorating, with at least sporadic success, the art of oral communication and oral narrative among teenagers. So it’s at least possible that in our Brave New World we may have not one, but three parallel sets of media in healthy competition for our frazzled attention. There is encouraging evidence from ratings services that television and radio are losing this competition, and losing badly. And the print media that mimic the broadcast media, providing no analysis but merely context-free one-paragraph ‘news’, are also losing. The winners so far are the Internet and the cell phone, the two media that offer the most promise for a renewal of public discourse.
Will this growing preference for informed, actionable discourse level off, while the pap of Reality TV and the insufferable mediocrity of the People’s Choice maintain its majority hold over North Americans? Are the Internet and the cellphone only succeeding because they are interactive and hence more humanly engaging, and when TV fights back with interactive pure-entertainment fare will it regain its stranglehold on North American culture? Or has the instinctive human thirst for ideas and understanding begun to make its inexorable struggle back, and will the media that offer only entertainment become truly obsolete in favour of media that once again offer all three content value propositions: entertainment, information, and utility?
Will we really amuse ourselves to death, or have we already begun to outgrow our addiction to these childish toys, and ready ourselves to face the imposing crises of our world equipped with real information, actionable options, and the capacity to make intelligent, collaborative decisions?