Amusing Ourselves To Death
A Review Essay
If only Neil Postman could see us now. In 1985 the internet was just a glimmer in they eye of the American public, and cable television was just beginning to truly take off after stimulation brought on by The 1984 Cable Act and deregulation. Yet even then, Postman compared the media landscape of the 1980s to Las Vegas, the city of sin and the nation’s capitol of entertainment and frivolity. He warned “We are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death” (1985, p.4). Now it’s 17 years, 300 channels, and millions of websites later, and perhaps some of the prophecies of Postman ring truer today than they did almost 20 years ago, amplified by technological advancements and audience dependency on media. At times, Postman’s words feel like an echo of former Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minow, who years ago gave a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters convention that described the television media landscape as a ‘vaste wasteland’. He posed the question to a group of television executives, asking “Why is so much of television so bad?” (1961). It is a question that seems to be the basis for many of Postman’s thoughts 25 years later.
Postman describes the process and perils of television rapidly displacing the print medium as the primary form of entertainment and public discourse in our society today. We have traded in the written word and its opportunities for the formulation and exchange of ideas for the flashy images and entertainment value we receive from television. The primary danger that Postman identifies is the fact that television, unlike the written word, does not facilitate an involved or intellectual participation on the part of the media consumer. The fleeting images and constantly changing dialogue don’t allow for retrospection or thoughtful consideration. Instead the medium is passively consumed with little thought required and even less thought inspired. The problem, he argues is not for scarcity of the written word as Postman says, “Television does not ban books, it simply displaces them” (1985, Pg. 141). It’s a simple fact that we’ve made our obvious choice leaving books on the shelves to gather dust, and diverting our eyes and ears to the splendors of television.
Postman discusses the dangers of this decision to embrace television and neglect typography through several logical and sound arguments, that were they discussed today would be further exemplified by current technology and the current state of the media industry. In the case of the way in which news is presented through the television medium, he says that it’s obvious it is not to be taken seriously. He argues “Everything about a news show tells us this- the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials- all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis” (1985, Pg. 87). Today, in an increasingly fragmented media landscape, viewers have multiple choices of where to receive their news (if at all). News directors encounter pressure from corporate media ownership who seek to give the viewer what they want to see, as opposed to what they need to see. The result is that we see news shows that look increasingly like entertainment with morning ‘news’, and entertainment shows that look increasingly like news, where particularly younger viewers are receiving the majority of their ‘news’ from a comedian behind a desk. Croteau, Hoynes and Milan refer to this process as the Hollywoodization of news (2012), a process that is intensifying in an increasingly fragmented media landscape that focuses on profit and ratings as opposed to public interest.
Postman also discusses the ramifications that television has had on our political process. Citing the Lincoln-Douglas debates that would often span for upwards of seven hours and of which transcripts read more like a novel than a speech. Would our citizens today have the attention span or the intellectual ability for that kind of political participation today? Postman’s answer is, probably not. Nicolas Carr of The Atlantic describes how the Internet has only intensified what Postman identified as a side effect of television. He says the Internet “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace” (2008). The effect that this shortened attention span has had on our political process is startling. In the age of television, the candidate’s platforms and stances on the issues have little to do with the confidence a voter has in their ability to be a political leader. Their opinion of a candidate is much more largely based on the way their hair looks, their smile, their charisma, and their overall ability to look comfortable on camera. It’s not the reality of a candidate’s credibility that matters; it is the perception of credibility. As Postman asserts, it reaches beyond the idea of perception is reality, replaced by the fact that perception is reality (1985). Where does this leave the validity of our political process? In a precarious place, as Postman explains, “If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude” (1985, Pg. 102). Today, the Internet forces candidates to be ‘on’ and aware of their public image at all times. As we saw in the 2012 Presidential election, one camera phone can record an otherwise private conversation and social media sharing sites can disseminate that information to the public. It is safe to say that Mitt Romney’s 48% speech had a detrimental effect on his image and in the eyes of voters. Today, in the age of the Internet and social media, the image of a political hopeful is even more important and constantly tended to than it was in 1985.
These examples illustrate Postman’s main emphasis throughout his book; the lament of the written word, which has long ago been overshadowed by the age of television. He fears that the two cannot coexist for the sake of public discourse, but the presence of a new medium isn’t a new story. We’ve seen it throughout history; type replaced the spoken word, the spoken word again replaced type with radio, the images of television replaced radio, and it all came full circle when the written word made a comeback through the internet and the digital revolution. It is reminiscent of the kind of ‘magical thinking’ that is often assumed with new technologies: This is going to be the one that changes it all. George Snell describes the idea of magical thinking in the realm of technology perfectly, as he says, “At times it can feel like snake-oil salesmen who promise miraculous cures” (2012). In actuality, technology and its development, much like fashion, is more cyclical than linear. Trends reemerge and we eventually tire of ‘the next best ting’. It seems to me that Postman may not have always seen past this idea of magical thinking towards what was ahead; through some of his examples he saw television as the end all be all of the mass media, and that’s simply not the case. The Internet has given birth to a resurgence of the written word, in those who seek to write it and those who seek to read it. But have the effects of television on our society already caused irreparable damage to our ability and desire to seek out information and participate in meaningful and informed discourse? Postman describes every medium as having a bias (1985, Pg. 85). The printing press had an obvious bias towards words, while radio has a bias towards sound, and television towards images. But where does the internet lie in this discussion of biases? A medium that uses words, images, video and sounds often simultaneously. Does the inability to define the Internet’s bias make it a more powerful medium than its predecessors; a medium that is above and immune from the idea of ‘magical thinking’? Or does it indeed make it even more of a threat to our society and the existence of a meaningful discourse?
Throughout the book, just as technology has bolstered many of Postman’s points, a few of Postman’s arguments seemed to be made weaker due to technological advancements over the years. One could argue against Postman’s assertion that television does not allow its audience the ability to fact check or examine the information that is presented to them in detail. Through technological advancements such as the DVR and the internet, a viewer can now hear something that is questionable, pause what they are watching, and use their computer or smartphone to examine the issue in further detail to determine if something they heard was inaccurate. With the internet, blogs and message boards offer users an outlet to sound off against perceived media inaccuracies, as well participate in the conversation via comment capabilities on news websites. Aside from participating in the conversation about the media, audiences now have the capability to actively participate as content creators, contributing user generated content. The idea that the medium of television is one way and the audience is passive is a concept that has been transformed through technological advancements.
Unlike the printing press, Postman obviously did not view the television as a technology that could contribute to the advancement of society or a spark for social change. He references the printing press as a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation; “With the word of God on every family’s kitchen table, Christians do not require the Papacy to interpret it for them” (1985, Pg. 85). The written word is inarguably a means to spark social change, but it’s not the only means. While television is certainly not going to win a Nobel Prize, Postman underestimates the power that is often behind the images we see on television; after all, ‘a picture’s worth a thousand words’. While videos that encourage social activism and participation are not often shown by the mainstream media on traditional television, the internet still has the same properties as a television through sites such as YouTube. Often the images we see in videos that encourage activism are equal to and even more than what would inspire us to change through the written word. Seeing the images of a distended belly of a child without food or the lost home of a flood victim is often more powerful than simply reading about these things. We can see the power of social media and the internet in sparking social change through humanitarian efforts such as Koney 2012 and the protest of Occupy Wall street.
Postman also did not see television as a logical or even effective way of spreading the message of Christianity. He identifies a core commandment that is broken through televangelism, which warns believers against making any graven images or idols for themselves. Postman argues that televangelism does just that, creating teachers that are more like celebrities, and making those teachers and the television the receivers of praise and glory, rather than God, saying “The danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion” (1985, Pg. 124). While I feel that Postman makes some very logical points against televangelism, and I actually agree with him on the many disparities of televangelism, I think his discussion was largely based on personal opinion and conviction, which can not be measured scientifically from person to person. While it is possible and even likely that some televangelists can be idolized and worshiped for who they are and not what they teach, that is highly dependent on the person who is receiving the message. If they have a sound understanding of biblical teachings (which it is very possible that they do not, which is part of Postman’s argument) and if the preacher does not encourage idolization of any earthly person or object, the medium should not supersede the message. My mind immediately goes to the elderly or the invalid who do not have the opportunity to attend a church service. If they watch a service on television, does it automatically mean that the message was tainted because of the medium in which it was viewed? Postman says, “there are several characteristic of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible” (1985, Pg. 118). I will respectfully disagree with Postman, as a religious experience is something that is measured internally and differs from person to person. His argument is based on the assumption that the we are unable to separate the feelings we associate with television caused by the negative content it so often shows, with the feelings we should have during a religious experience. Postman says, “The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be associated as a frame for sacred events. To this I will counter that the world is a profane place; the world is obsessed with being entertained and amused, and yet where did Jesus preach: In the world. Though I agree that it is more difficult to have a true religious experience through teachings on television, I will not attest to the fact that it is impossible. The Internet along with message boards and blogs allow audience members to reach out and connect with each other now, unlike in 1985 when they were being reached through one-way communication of the television. Audiences are not just passively receiving everything that is delivered to them through their television sets. Receivers of televangelism have the ability to achieve what Croteau, Hoynes and Milan refer to as active audience interpretation (2012), in order to shape their own religious experience in response to televangelism. Now, through the Internet, they have the opportunity to reach out, ask questions, and even worship with a community of believers via blogs, message boards, or ministry websites.
Identifying the change from typography to television as the prophetic end of an intelligent society is an argument that has been both bolstered and complicated by technological advancements such as the Internet. However, after reading this book it is obvious that the thoughts and ideas of Postman were ahead of his time. While our society is still highly dependent on television as a source of entertainment, the Internet brings a resurgence in the written word, though the medium through which it is delivered offers simultaneous distractions and amusements. Postman made the assertion in 1985 that, “Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world,” (1985, Pg. 106) countering the widely believed fact that television would help us to be more informed about the world around us. The Internet was a tool that had the ability to change everything, opening our borders and expanding our opportunities to attain knowledge, much like what was the hope for television in its infancy. But the fact remains that while these opportunities for information are available to us, it is disinformation, as Postman describes, that we seek. “Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information-misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information- information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing” (1985, 107). It is our inability to place priority on the relevant over the irrelevant, the sincere over the superficial, that will continue to plague us as a society that as Postman predicted, is amusing ourselves to death.
Carr, Nicholas. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? The Atlantic. Retrieved November 12, 2012, From http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society: Industries, images, and audiences. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Pine Forge Press.
Minnow, Newton. (1961). Television and the Public Interest. Retrieved November 17, 2012, From http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm.
Postman, Neil. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York, New York: Penguin Group.
Snell, George. (2012) Social media will not cure cancer. High Talk. Retrieved November 20, 2012, From http://hightalk.net/2012/05/15/social-media-will-not-cure-cancer/.
Note: My opinion on this topic is drawn from my own personal experience with social media, and has been greatly affected and influenced by the fact that I am an American citizen, a woman who is allowed to pursue a higher education, a Christian who is allowed to freely worship in my own way, and a person who is allowed the freedom of speech. If I did not have these rights, it is highly likely that I would use social media in a much different way, and my views on this topic would be very different. My opinion is merely a product of my environment, and I believe Gladwell’s may have been too.
In regards to the debate over Digital Democracy and the views of Gladwell vs. Shirky, I don’t think there is necessarily a right or a wrong answer. I think each individual’s ability to be influenced towards participation in social reform movements is highly dependent on several intrinsic factors; a person’s views on the issue at hand, a predisposition towards passivity or confrontation, or a level of involvement in a particular cause. It would be inaccurate to say that social media inspires its users towards action 100% of the time, but it would also be ridiculous to say that social media does not facilitate or make the process of organizing and participating in social reform easier, for those who are inclined to participate.
I also think that age is a huge factor in which side of the tape you fall on with this issue. If I had to choose a side, I would probably lean more towards Gladwell’s view, though I have a sneaking suspicion that my opinion is a product of my generation. Gladwell makes a good point about ‘weak ties’ in social media, and how the company we keep on sites such as Facebook and Twitter are not representative of our real life relationships that we are truly invested in. I would say this is particularly true for the younger generation, using myself and my parents as an example: I have many friends I couldn’t tell you two things about on social media, while my mother and father deny friend requests from anyone who they haven’t kept company with their whole life. My social media accounts are therefore infiltrated with dozens of requests to “Join my cause” from hundreds that I am connected to through ‘weak ties’. It is because of this that I would agree with Gladwell when he counters prior praise of social media. Gladwell states, “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. “
To illustrate Gladwell’s point, if I am sent a request to join a cause on social media by someone that I don’t really know (a ‘weak tie’) and it only requires a few simple clicks than I’ll participate, no problem. However, if it requires more than that I am not likely to take action, unless it is the cause that catches my attention, and not the person who invited me to participate in the cause. It is in this way that I agree with Gladwell, who in defense of his view says, “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”
Kirk Chefyitz counters Gladwell’s views, saying “Considering the central role of media and mass communications throughout history, that’s a pretty silly position — a position that ignores the central role of media in defining human society. So-called social media, of course, are nothing more (nor less) than media–another set of publishing platforms in a long series of such platforms.” While it is true that media plays a part in reformation and ‘spreading the word’ during social movements, there also is something to be said for where the original source of that information comes from. If we see or hear about a social reform movement from the mass media, we may be more inclined to pay it more attention than if it is something we heard about from our fifth cousin’s best friend’s boyfriend-in-law (in other words, a weak tie).
Shirky- The Political Power of Social Media
What is his conclusion on the question: Do digital tools enhance democracy? Do you agree. And also, what does it mean to say “enhance democracy? Shirky agrees with the diplomatic answer that social media tools, “probably do hurt in the short run and probably help in the long run”. He also asserts that these digital tools are most beneficial in those countries which already have an established democracy and where the people can influence change. I agree with Shirky’s views, as the mere existence of digital tools is not an assurance of democratic freedom, but a vehicle that makes easier the practice of democracy.
Social media has become, he says, a “coordinating tool.” What does that mean? Shirky explains that social media has become a coordinating tool by helping “loosely coordinated publics demand change”. We see this all the time in society today, especially with tools such as Facebook where with a click of a button an entire protest group can form, organize, and demand action, regardless of the geographical distance between members. I have personally seen this coordinating tool put to work when a family friend was denied health insurance for her child that was born with complications. The health insurance refused to cover the child due to ‘pre-existing conditions’. How could a newborn child be classified as a person with pre-existing conditions? That is what friends, family, and thousands of concerned strangers asked themselves as they formed a Facebook group to petition the actions of the insurance company. With the support and outcry from thousands of Facebook members, the group garnered the attention of the insurance company, who in turn granted the child health insurance coverage.
What is the environmental view of social media that Shirky talks about? Shirky discusses the environmental view of social media as “the long game” in internet freedom. Much as environmentalists focus their efforts on the sustainability of the environment, in a changing media landscape the internet and social media are crucial to the sustainability of the public sphere. The opportunity that the internet provides the public to participate in political discourse is one that Shirky establishes “Not as a separate agenda, but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.” In this environmental view, the internet and the freedom it provides to gather and discuss is an important aspect of the sustainability of today’s public sphere.
While there are capabilities of the internet that can contribute to the public sphere and make participation in the conversation easier through comments, etc, if the public sphere is intended to represent an entire population and provide a forum to achieve a public opinion, then I don’t think we can say that the internet is a model of the public sphere. Because of the fragmented nature of online media, the very utility that members of an online community seek is the selective exposure that the internet provides. Sure, there are some members of society that will use the internet to investigate all sides of an issue, but for many, the internet is a place to find like minded opinions and reinforcements of our already inherent beliefs through blogs or niche media. Social media sites, though commended for their ability to connect anyone and everyone, also defy the model of the public sphere by allowing users to pick and choose who and what they are exposed to. The internet, in my opinion, is more of a model of our own individual and selectively exposed to private spheres, than a model of the public sphere.
What is meant by a public sphere and how did Habermas came up with this concept? Describe some public spheres you might be familiar with.
The public sphere, as defined by Habermas, is a virtual (or even physical) place where citizens can voice their opinions on and discuss problems in society, in the hopes of influencing action or change. Through discussing issues of societal importance, members of society can collaborate to form a public opinion. This idea of the public sphere as it was explained by Habermas, was born as an intermediary between the “private sphere”, and the “sphere of public authority” (the nobility, the state, the church, the bourgeois class, etc.), which was once considered as representative of the ‘public’.
Habermas points to a polarization and separation of public and the public authority at the end of the eighteenth century as the catalyst for the creation of the public sphere. Citizens no longer wanted to just be represented by those in authority, and they called for change. “The general interest, which was the measure of such a rationality, was then guaranteed, according to the presuppositions of a society of free commodity exchange, when the activities of private individuals in the marketplace were freed from social compulsion and from political pressure n the public sphere,” (pg. 53). It was this move towards the representation of the ‘general interest’, coupled with a rise in literacy that led to the formation of critical journalism, outside of the bulletins and notices that comprised ‘journalism’ of the time. This led to the public sphere model as we know it today.
We see the public sphere as a model in our everyday lives: From town hall meetings to the PTA, the public sphere model is at the basis of a democratic society. In today’s world, the public sphere also still exists in the media, just as it did at its inception at the end of the eighteenth century. However now, with the internet as a medium for public discourse, the public sphere is arguably more inclusive than ever. Virtually any person with acces to the internet can join in the conversation, contributing their opinion, signing petitions, or just participating in the general conversation that comprises the public sphere.
The connection between Cooley’s The Process of Social Change and the phenomenon inspired by Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as discussed in the review Books as Bombs as well as Stephanie Coontz review, is one that is obvious in terms of the concept of a dominant discourse. In Cooley’s article, he discusses that even before the media existed, the idea of a dominant discourse, or ‘common sense’ way of life was prevalent amidst societies. In early societies, there existed communities of discorse, and if you did not understand your neighbor, Cooley explains, you had three options; separate, enslave, or go to war. He states “A meagre environment limited the development of innate tendencies and capacities, and the comparative sameness of thought and action reflected the narrowness of the general life,” (pg. 76).
Centuries later we arrive at the 1950s, where the dominant discourse of a woman’s role being in the home was not only assumed as ‘common sense’ by society, but was constantly reinforced by the media. It was Betty Friedan who challenged this dominant discourse with her ground breaking book The Feminine Mystique. In his examination of the effects that this and other books like it of the time had on society, Louis Menand sums up why these books were so monumental in challenging the dominant discouse of the 1950s, saying, “These are books whose significance exceeds anything they actually said. For many people, it doesn’t even matter what they said or why they were written. What matters is that, when the world turned, they were there.” Because they were there, and because they challenged a yet unchallenged notion in society, the dominant discourse now says that I am able to pursue my education and career, while still desiring and having a husband and a family, if I so choose.
Menand and Coontz acknowledge that there are several issues with Friedan’s book, from ignoring the model of the African American home to the outdated notion that overbearing mothers were causing their sons to be homosexuals, however both also acknowledge that The Feminine Mystique encouraged and established a new community of discourse among housewives in the 1960s, who realized they were not alone in their feelings of repression. This spurred the women’s liberation movement in which Friedan played an integral role, and the community of discourse that viewed women as equals expanded and established itself as the dominant discourse in today’s society, an unthinkable achievement in the 1950s.
The Propaganda Model
David Cromwell’s review of Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model was reminiscent to me of several of the readings which we have encountered throughout the semester, including Lippmann’s Nature of News and its discussion of public relations practices in relation to news media, as well as the examination of the economics of the media industry by Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan, that discusses the influence of advertisers and corporate ownership on the news media. Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda model identifies five societal filters that determine news coverage, including corporate ownership, advertisers, sourcing (choosing sources that are ‘trustworthy, usually public relations and government as opposed to ordinary citizens), flak or complaints about news coverage, and ‘anti-communism’ or identifying the enemy. The propaganda model examines these issues and the way they make impartial and balanced reporting of the news difficult, and turn mainstream media into “propaganda vehicles”.
I do believe that while some of Herman and Chomsky’s views are still relevant today, particularly in the case of their discussion on public relations and sourcing, I do think that some of their arguments have been antiquated due to emerging technology. For example, as summarized by Cromwell, the authors express that “Dissent from the mainstream is given little, or zero, coverage, while governments and big business gain easy access to the public in order to convey their state-corporate messages” (2002). I find a few issues with this statement. First, with the explosion of blogs and the practices of citizen journalists in the last decade, dissent from the mainstream is given an abundance of coverage, just not from the outlets that are established by the media industry as “mainstream”. While blogs and voices of opinion that differ from the dominant discourse are not the most commonly viewed in our society, they are still available to an increasingly autonomous audience that seeks out information for themselves, rather than passively accepting what the news media provides to them. Secondly, I take issue with Herman and Chomsky’s assumption that the mainstream media has “easy-access” to the audience. With an increase in programming choices, the audience has become vastly more fragmented today than it was twenty years ago, and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for any news medium to attract an audience. That being said, I do agree that it is much easier for big business or political interests to attract the news media’s attention, as opposed to the average American.
Sheldon Rampton of PR Watch expresses his belief that that the internet has outdated some of the issues in the original work by Herman and Chomsky. “Today things are somewhat different. Across the political spectrum, there is a widespread belief that disinformation, deception and propaganda pervade the media,” (2007). Audience members are becoming more aware of political and corporate agendas, and how they effect what is being shown on the news. The audience now has the internet to turn to as a source of information and diversity of content. Rampton also discusses the many ways in which the five filters do not apply to the internet. He argues that low barriers of entry challenge the media ownership filter, the internet advertising model makes the advertising filter of less importance, and the inclusive nature of blogs and websites have made the filters of sourcing and flak more advantageous than disadvantageous on the internet. I agree with Rampton that in terms of the internet, and in the ways I identified above, the Propaganda Model needs an update to be relevant in today’s changing media landscape.