ThinkingAmusing ourselves to death – Part two

Amusing ourselves to death – Part two

This is the second post in a two part series on Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing ourselves to death: public discourse in the age of show business” . The first part is here. This week’s post is also the final in the series on how technology “hijacks our minds” (to quote Google’s Tristan Harris), which I started a few weeks ago. You can read the first post in that series here.

Last week’s post on Neil Postman tried to summarise his argument as to why television, in the 1980s, was bad for democracy. The thrust of the argument is as follows:

  • The medium used to convey a message will put constraints around that message. For example, you can’t do philosophy with smoke signals.
  • As a result, when America was in “the age of typography” (in the 18th and 19th centuries) it was able to build a robust democracy, despite threats like the civil war. Why – because the media of books, pamphlets, and newspapers are conducive to nuanced discussion and debate.
  • Television, on the other hand, is a medium that is incapable of nuanced, rational debate. Its basic bias will be one of entertainment. And that bias is integral to the medium: because of its reliance on images, and not on words. Television creates a “peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.” (p77)
  • This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that television has become the dominant medium in 1980s America. It affects the way every other medium in the country sees itself. As a result, the dominant metaphor for all public discourse has become one of entertainment, based on images not words.
  • As a result, the culture is rapidly becoming one of shallow public debate, which is bad for democracy in America.

Thinking back over the decades since then, it’s hard not to agree with Postman that the quality of public debate has been “dumbed down” by the way the media (all media) have constrained nuanced public discourse.

But what about now?

The question now is, however, what about the internet? What effect is that medium (or, maybe more precisely, that range of media activated by the technology of the internet) having on public debate?

The first question to get clear is whether the internet is this era’s dominant medium, replacing television. And that seems fairly clear. You only have to look at the way television has reimagined itself in the aesthetics of the internet. News channels have become multi-screen, with multiple “windows”, constantly updating information. Even fictional television shows are rapid, images cutting quickly, with a much more “computer screen aesthetic” (the BBC’s Spooks, a show that developed over the decade of the internet really hitting its straps, being a great example). Many magazines and newspapers have remodeled their aesthetic for their paper versions (the ones that still have paper versions) to mimic the computer screen.

And so, if the internet is now the dominant medium, replacing television, what are its biases (in the same way that television’s bias is to entertainment because of its reliance on the image)? And what do those biases do to our public debate?

The bias of the internet is to entertainment

I am pretty pessimistic, because I think the bias inherent in the internet, like the bias inherent in television, is to entertainment. Except I think it’s more biased to entertainment than television is. This may seem controversial, because many people view the internet as the new printing press, spawning a new era in writing. But, unfortunately, I suspect that the internet as experienced by most people, is one based on entertainment and not nuance. Let me explain why.

Firstly, like television, the internet is an image based medium – the summation of Postman’s “peek-a-boo” world. Although the internet started as text, it rapidly moved to images as soon as bandwidth allowed. Why? Because the nature of the internet is to keep presenting new things, through its hyperlink architecture, in a “peek-a-boo” way. And images are far more attractive than text.

Secondly, unlike the early days of television, the internet has created a new scarcity – the scarcity of attention. We now live in a world where all the information ever formed is available to us. That has never been the case before. In the 70s information was scarce because it could only be distributed through scarce media – the spectrum in your local town only permitted a small number of television and radio stations, and the distribution costs only allowed for one or two newspapers. Today, the internet has eliminated that “distribution scarcity” – flooding the world with information. But in turn, this has created a new scarcity – people’s attention. Today’s media don’t have to overcome the scarcity of spectrum and physical distribution. They have a much tougher challenge – they have to overcome the scarcity of people’s attention, in a world where people can literally look anywhere. (I first came across this idea of the move from the scarcity of spectrum to the scarcity of attention in Ben Thompson’s blog Stratechery. If you are not reading him – you should be!). This scarcity of attention leaves media companies with little choice. If they want to win clicks they have to be entertaining. Nuanced analysis doesn’t attract attention. Show business does.

The consequences of this entertainment bias

So what are the consequences of this bias to entertainment that we see in the internet. We see the following effects on the news:

  • Emotion, not rationality: One of the most effective ways to gain attention is with emotion. You see it in the outrage that the internet can generate. It’s far better to be outraged and angered by something than it is to subject your thoughts to rigorous intellectual analysis. And thus the news becomes one of simple assertions and overstatements, rather than nuance.
  • Image, not text: Increasingly the internet has become more and more image based. Think back to your Facebook or Twitter streams of five years ago and compare them to today.
  • Novelty, not lasting ideas: The internet rewards novelty – which is far more entertaining in a “peek-a-boo world” – than enduring ideas. In this age, if something is an hour old on Twitter you already feel out of date.
  • Confirmation, not challenge: It is more comfortable to have your pre-existing ideas and prejudices confirmed rather than challenged. In this information rich world we can all create our own echo chambers that are comfortable and never have to expose ourselves to challenging contrary ideas.

Unless the strengths of the internet can come more to the fore – its ability to host long-form text combined with its ability to search and find new and nuanced ideas, even from marginalised voices – I fear we are continuing down Postman’s road for a while yet.

Postman’s warning for today

I can think of no better way to end a series on technology than with Postman’s incredibly prescient warning from 1985 (p 157-8). He was writing before the internet and speaking of television, but these words are just as apt, if not more so, for our situation today:

“To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed of light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”