The way we receive information affects us more than any of us realize. Whether sign language, printed word, or screen-based, the medium through which we get any sort of content shapes our sensibilities and preferences. And with the speed of technological advance, it’s difficult to keep up with the way changing media forms affect us. I’ve had an increasing interest in these sorts of issues in recent years, and just last night I was reminded how important they are.
I seldom watch cable news, but yesternight I found myself taking in a program that will remain nameless, though I’ll offer the slight clue that my own surname is unfortunately in the name of the show. (You’ll understand why I say “unfortunate” if you continue reading.) There they were; three floating heads before me on the screen, their comments undecipherable because each was shouting in order to be heard above the rest. And despite the surprising volume each was embarrassingly able to produce on national television, no one was heard; neither dialogue nor debate was had; and all of us who tuned in wasted approximately two minutes of our lives.
I’ve had an increasing concern over this sort of thing for several years now. But earlier this year I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and he explained everything to me. Postman recognized that different media forms are biased towards particular types of content. For example, as a medium for communication, smoke signals are not biased towards careful, logical, and rational discourse. They are a good medium for the type of communication for which they were intended, but you wouldn’t do philosophy or theology through the medium of smoke signals. Alternatively, the printed word is biased toward extended rational discourse and provides a good medium for the exchange of ideas and debate. Amusing Ourselves to Death was primarily about how televised media is biased toward entertainment and how its increase has affected our society, but his conclusions are applicable (and likely magnified) with the variety of screen-based media that surrounds us today. Postman argued that screen-based media (like TV or iPads) is inherently biased in favor of entertainment and against rational discourse. And here’s the kicker: the biases of these various media forms shape our sensibilities. So, if we immerse ourselves in books, our own sensibilities and biases will be towards extended rational argument. If we immerse ourselves in screens, then our sensibilities and biases will be towards entertainment. If it’s not entertaining, we become bored and uninterested.
The attempt to use a particular media form against its natural bias leaves us rather unsatisfied. You can do extended rational discourse on a screen, but the content resists the bias of the media. Postman makes his point by pointing to C-SPAN. It has plenty of extended rational discourse, but it makes for really bad TV, and no one watches it. So, everything that comes at us across a screen is subject to the biases of the medium. Thus, given that all screens are biased towards entertainment, anyone who wants to use screens as a medium has to make it entertaining in order to be successful. The result (and the problem) is this: when you make the move to do entertainment, you sacrifice serious and thoughtful rational engagement. Entertainment is quick and loud and flashy. Serious engagement requires extended attention, thoughtfulness, and careful critical engagement. This is why cable news is so popular. Over the last several decades our society has become increasingly biased towards entertainment due to the increasing proliferation and domination of screen-based media. So, the news folks have gotten into the entertainment business, because that’s what everyone wants and that what advertisers will pay for. The so-called news is now flashy and colorful. There is shouting and song. Segments last only a few minutes, which is, of course, plenty of time for a panel to deal seriously and thoroughly with the major issues of the day.
Postman argued that all this causes us to lose the ability as a nation to engage in serious talk about serious business. This is what he meant by “amusing ourselves to death.” We’ve surrounded ourselves with screens and subjected ourselves to their bias toward entertainment which has resulted in our sensibilities being conditioned towards entertainment. So, if something is not entertaining, we are bored with it and pay it no attention no matter how important it might be. The result is the degradation of public discourse and eventually the bumfoozling of society as it spins toward its uninformed though fully entertained end.
This is why the unnamed cable news show hinted at above would be more properly titled “The Entertainment Factor”. That is, after all, what it is – the verbal equivalent of professional wrestling. And there is, of course, spin. But the spinning is not what we expect. We expect political spin, which is certainly there in abundance. But the stronger spin, the more cunning spin, indeed the more dangerous spin, is the entertainment spin. When the most serious issues of the day are spun in order to entertain, then those all-important issues are trivialized, and the result is that we eventually lose our ability to engage is serious talk about serious issues. And the real tragedy, as Postman recognized, is that we don’t care. We are entertained; so everything is okay.