Demystifying Technology · Reflections

Amusing Ourselves to Death

I am a big fan of the daily thought email service provided by the good folks of “Cutlure is Not Optional” . Their thought provoking quotes sent as part of their “the daily asterisk” service help me challenge my thinking on a range of topics, and often providing fodder for interesting conversations over pints of beer later in the day.

A number of the daily quotes recently have drawn from Neil Postman’s books Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Disappearance of Childhood. Here’s a listing of the more recent ones. These wonderful reflections help us to challenge television as a neutral, physical artifact separate from society. Instead, these quotes serve to demystify the social black box that is, often unconsidered, augmenting human forces shaping our world in powerful, and problematic, ways. Want to join me in a pint, or two, to discuss?

Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

In saying no one knew about the ideas implicit in the telegraph, I am not quite accurate. Thoreau knew. Or so one may surmise. It is alleged that upon being told that through the telegraph a man in Maine could instantly send a message to a man in Texas, Thoreau asked, “But what do they have to say to each other?” In asking this question, to which no serious interest was paid, Thoreau was directing attention to the psychological and social meaning of the telegraph, and in particular to its capacity to change the character of information — from the personal and regional to the impersonal and global. (The Disappearance of Childhood)

Does television shape culture or merely reflect it? … The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture. This means, among other things, that we rarely talk about television, only about what is on television — that is, about its content. Its ecology, which includes not only its physical characteristics and symbolic code but the conditions in which we normally attend to it, is taken for granted, accepted as natural. (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. 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. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

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