In ‘Amusing ourselves to Death’ Neil Postman wrote one of the great books necessary to understand the internet. All the more impressive a feat because he wrote it in 1985. His work foreshadows emergent problems as the web begins to define its language and our culture for the first time, hospital and just possibly points to the seeds of a salvageable future.
Postman wrote that the early 20th century brought forth two competing visions of the future: Orwell’s 1984, patient in which we are oppressed by a totalitarian regime and Huxley’s Brave New World in which our fascination with personal amusement means that we choose to oppress ourselves. Orwell’s dystopian vision was dying even by 1985, sick a year past its sell-by date and mere moments before glasnost. Huxley’s vision however, seemed only to have become more real.
Postman premise was was that technological advances within media do more than give us new tools for the expression of our culture, they mediate it, changing not just what we think about but how we think at all.
The printing press ushered in a typographical epistemology; when thinking and creating we did so through the construct of the printing press. One of the elements of this construct was the sheer amount of information that could be imparted through print, it lent itself to volume. With volume came nuance and argument, challenge and careful refutation. Our minds were shaped through this typographical prism and it affected the entire culture even beyond the printed page. As I have noted before, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were seven hours long in which a crowd would be expected to follow an intricately constructed argument on a single point for hours at a time. Early novels were happily gargantuan (which author would even attempt to equal Richardson’s Clarissa now?). This is not to say that every work was one of volume (this was also the age of pamphleteers), but that the principal technology through which we expressed our culture also defined our ability to think within our culture. The technology was suited to expressing depth, and thus our culture reflected it.
The second aspect of this culture was that it was, in general, geographically limited. News was truly local, and as a result often actionable. The news they read had an intrinsic effect upon people’s lives. This is important; the news was something that was used as a guide to action, it had a purpose. This meant that the press were held to a certain standard of utility.
This largely changed with the next great technological epoch, the invention of the telegraph and photograph. The telegraph ushered in an incredible transition in our culture, news organisations raced to be the first to have the telegraph from Washington to New York and then across the country. Our media was no longer limited by geography, recency became prized over actionable information. An earthquake in California, or flood in New Orleans was now news that the people of brooklyn might expect and demand to read, but it was no longer information that they could do anything about. News was divorced from action and now flirting with entertainment.
The photograph intensified this transition, no longer was the printed word the principal carrier of our culture, it had been superseded by the image. And it turns out that a picture is worth far less than a thousand words, it merely paints a portrait from one man’s vantage point that brooks no contest or refutation. The media we received had ceased to be actionable and had become entertaining, it had ceased to be nuanced and open to challenge; it had become a statement of unalterable fact: a picture never lies.
Postman believed this reached its apotheosis with television. Television demanded that everything be entertainment, no action required but to consume. What’s more, that technology mediated towards brevity. A 30 minute newscast on average contains less words than a single newspaper column. This meant that only the most simple concepts could be delivered and it changed everything.
It was from the television preachers that we saw the rise of a fundamentalist christianity that preached that every single word of the bible was literal and true, no other message would have survived and thrived in minds built by television. Education, which had previously been supposed to have been a challenge to the intellect was now judged on how entertaining the teacher or materials might be. Instead of seven-hour debates we saw in the last election an endless stream of 30 second soundbites masquerading as debates. No thought too small, no challenge beyond the flat denial or wisecrack. Television had (and has) defined us, and we sit staring at Huxley’s Brave New World.
Postman never got the chance to see the Internet flower, and he might have thought the future he saw confounded. When the Internet was young, poor connection speeds and the sub-culture from which it was born meant that typography seemed to rule the day again. The language used to define how we interacted with this new medium were lifted from that typographical era, we ‘browsed’ ‘pages’ our default home was often index.htm. A medium in search of itself drew upon the metaphors of the past and sustained itself.
As if reliving history, the image and then television encroached upon this new typographical world and overtook it, but these were still in large part borrowed concepts adapting to a new environment instead of being created by it. The first change in epistemology that has truly been born out of this new technological change is the stream. It has no ubiquitous analogue within our former culture. Fragments of information, often unrelated flowing past in a vast ungraspable river of information into which we dip. Information has become an ambient part of our awareness, rather than a point of focus.
This new change might have made Postman fear ever more greatly for the future he left to us. We are not even given the luxury of a story beyond the headline; recency becomes not just the most important thing, it becomes the only thing; we know 140 characters about everything but have trouble reading a post as long as this one. Yes the stream brings each of these fragments together, but a thousand competing headlines do not equal a carefully constructed argument. Yes, the stream contains links that bring the reader to longer texts, but the impact of the stream on our culture means that our ability to delve to even this depth. We look in awe to those normal people who could sit through a seven-hour lecture 150 years ago, but I wonder whether the stream means that future generations will look in awe upon even our meagre efforts to focus on depth.
Just as with television we have less and less time with which to hold attention and get our point across, and thus must naturally lean towards emotion and away from intellect as the most effective and loyal respondent. Could streams give birth to the same level of intellectual enlightenment as the printing press? It seems more that we are exchanging being enlightened for being informed.
However, there is something here that makes the future seem brighter and the earthquake in Haiti in part points to this. The telegraph took away our proximity to news and our ability to act upon it, but the Internet of streams may yet bring it back. Geography no longer precludes our ability to act and the fragments of news we receive may engender micro actions and it is there, far more than in the stream, where the cumulative effect can mean something. The Haitian earthquake is potentially no longer something of interest primarily as entertainment, but is once again news that I can act on. As the web brings forward new ways for people to collaborate through micro-actions, such as kickstarter or If we ran the world it has the potential for each of us to make the news more than morbid entertainment, but a tool for action again. If we can nurture that crucial link and make those actions more implicit to how we interact with the web then over time we might just regain what was lost.