How Streams might be killing our culture and Haiti might save it

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, 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, 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, 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.

4 responses to “How Streams might be killing our culture and Haiti might save it”

  1. Well-written article, except for the somewhat clanging use of ‘entertainment’ to describe pre-Haiti earthquakes.

    I think you display a healthy scepticism about some aspects of digital tech, but I disagree about a few points…

    I don’t see how the length of the L-D debates necessarily proves that they had a longer attention span in 1858 than we do. I believe the art of rhetoric had a much bigger role in the culture and education systems back then, and that speeches were in some ways a form of entertainment. We have lost a lot of the cultural context, and therefore they may appear more unusual achievements, and thus more awe-inspiring. If long attention spans are in themselves impressive then I would say that spending 7 hours listening to a highly-charged and expert debate about issues that would imminently tear apart the country is less impressive than some 1990s gamers spending 7 hours a day rearranging falling bricks.

    Richardson might have written a mighty long book, but surely the reason why few such long books are written these days is that it’s really, really uncomfortable to hold up a 1500 page hardback book for hours upon hours. Many authors write multi-volume works that comfortably exceed 1500 pages- I believe you’ve read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, for example. Ten years ago people would have mocked the idea of a 600+ page book aimed at kids. Then J.K. Rowling came along. If ebooks take off then the ergonomic problem of long books would be solved and we might see much longer books.

    As an aside, people don’t seem to have a problem following 6 month or multi-year TV series such as Lost or 24. Just as those ‘happily gargantuan’ books of the Victorian era were very often released in serial instalments.

    A bit later in the article you come close to saying that the current fundamentalist revival in the US could only have appealed to minds simplified by TV… And yet, in the very same year that the Lincoln-Douglas debates apparently demonstrated the sophistication and attention to nuance of “the wider culture”, the ‘Third Great Awakening’ of American Evangelism kicked off. Periodic religious revivals seem to be part and parcel of American culture, regardless of what media they have.

    Your second point about the news ceasing to be actionable and becoming entertainment seems to me to overstate the ability of early newspapers’ readers to actually have power over their surroundings. Most people didn’t even have the vote back then. I can’t say that I’ve ever read a typical early newspaper, but I would guess it wasn’t all “Village Duck Pond Weeds Crisis: Volunteers Needed!”, and that it also included stories about endearingly troublesome cats etc.

    I don’t get your hostility to the image: why is a photo necessarily more subjective than a written piece? And why does it brook no challenge or refutation? The Chinese who objected to photos purporting to be of riots within Tibet in 2008 analysed and challenged those photos pretty thoroughly. Also, I think you’ve read this: “The man finishes his story, — how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo! on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere. Then already is our first speaker not man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist.” There’s no reason why you couldn’t refute an image with a better one, surely?

    There may be fewer words in a half-hour programme than in a newspaper column, but we may remember far more about the TV programme than the newspaper column. What probably made a bigger impression on the general public- endless publications of statistics on the developing world or Hans Rosling’s TED data visualisations?

    Thanks for displaying your ability to sustain focus enough to read this post;-) and good luck to making events far more actionable!


  2. Thanks for the response Chris. I’ll try and address these within the time available 😉

    – The point about hurricanes/earthquakes is that prior to any ability to influence or take action, the news was so much disaster porn, fascinating but divorced from our lives. We had our heartstrings tugged, or were inspired by a miraculous escape and in doing so the news was fitting the same purpose as the fiction we read or plays we saw.

    – Like the equivalency with Tetris, but we’re talking about two different levels of focus with that. It’s operant conditioning at best. It’s more appropriate to look at whether people could accept the same behaviours under similar conditions: could we have a presidential debate with the same format? I think not.

    – I think that conflating the great awakening with the current fundamentalism is too superficial. There wasn’t the same blind faith in the literal nature of the Bible and a greater willingness to challenge. Some of the great religious philosophers were pushing the boundaries of their thought in that time. I don’t think one can say the same of Pat Robertson.

  3. Hi, I thought you probably meant ‘disaster porn’ when you used the word ‘entertainment’, it was just a minor stylistic point in an excellent essay. When I think of mobilising people for disaster relief, though, the first thing that pops into my mind is Michael Buerk’s (TV) broadcasts from Ethiopia, and the (televised) Live Aid concert that followed it and which was inspired by it.

    What’s wrong with operant conditioning? It evokes images of rats pressing levers, but surely constant feedback and facing ever increasing, carefully graded increments of difficulty is a pretty great way to learn? Also, some of the greatest music works like operant conditioning on me, with my perhaps very limited appreciation of music, in that it very frequently sets up situations that demand musical resolution, but I can’t figure out how it is to be achieved. It’s often then resolved by the brilliant adaptation of a musical idea that has already been made familiar earlier in the piece, which makes the resolution retrospectively appear inevitable. This process then repeats itself frequently, and it’s largely this that holds my attention for the whole piece.

    I disagree that you can compare a debate in 1858 to a debate today, because the lively culture of public speaking has almost died, to the point that people are apparently more scared of public speaking than death, and when forced to speak publicly try to shift as much attention as possible onto Powerpoint slides. People today often hate public speaking, whereas in the 19th century many people grew up reading Cicero and Demosthenes and with an ideal of the active citizen. They thus had an appreciation of many of the techniques of rhetoric, and quite possibly some experience of public speaking themselves. People don’t have this today, and it’s consequently very much more difficult to appreciate, and maintain focus on, speeches.

    I think that the Third Great Awakening and the current, so-called Fourth Great Awakening do have some parallels, from what little I know. Both reached prominence during the apparent death-throes of an American Dream (the belief that any hard-working, decent man could eventually escape “wage slavery” and become a boss in the former case; the belief that any decent, hard-working person would get progressively richer in the latter). Both campaigned against a ‘social evil’ (alcohol; extra-marital children) by promoting abstinence through education, and by making alcohol/abortion as difficult as possible to obtain. The leading politician of the Third Great Awakening was W.J. Bryan of Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial fame. Both movements had a belief in the imminent Second Coming. Both made highly populist appeals to the ‘ordinary people’ being oppressed by depraved elites. I bow to your greater knowledge of the religious philosophers of the late 19th century, but I can at least say that there are ‘non-movement’ conservative philosophers such as Michael Sandel, who has made highly respectable critiques of John Rawls and liberalism more generally, and served in the administration of Bush the Lesser.