Monday, October 13, 2014

Amusing Ourselves to Death

According to Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, with the transition from a print culture to a television culture, American discourse in all of the relevant and important fields have had significant decreases in quality.

The printing press emerged as a primary means of publication within the 18th century. With the printing press, information could be disbursed in an efficient manner. However, this information was not useless or amusing trivia, divorced from any meaningful context.

On the contrary, the information was provided with clarity and enough analysis for the reader to weigh upon and reflect on that which he was learning. Indeed, the medium of the printed word was specifically conducive to critical thinking. When you read, you set the distractions down to meditate upon what you are hearing.

Postman specifically argues that the medium of the printed word provided a basis for a culture “inclined toward rational argument and presentation, and therefore, made up of meaningful content.” It is easy to see how this applies to the medium of the printing press itself; however, Postman argues that the typographical culture had implications beyond that of just the printed word.

To illustrate, the Lincoln-Douglas debates involved spoken words that read much like any printed type of the era, with sentences that rival the length of many modern day paragraphs. Perhaps more surprisingly, these debates were almost always longer in length than most sporting events today. In one instance, on October 16, 1854, Lincoln and Douglas debated in a formal, organized manner for about 7 hours, with Lincoln and Douglas each giving one speech that was a good three hours long. I sincerely doubt that any human being could fill three hours worth of time without addressing arguments from a logical perspective, and the record does indeed show this to be true.

Contrast this style of debate with our televised debates today. Today, the candidates would be lucky if the entire debate lasted anywhere close to the three hour slots allotted to one speech of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. Furthermore, the points we see brought up usually lack in logical analysis, but rather involve clever slogans or carefully designed rhetoric. I will refrain from mentioning how the debates have grown informal, with candidates interrupting their opponents to gain more speaking time, or even laughing at the arguments their opponents are making.

But Postman would argue this is not the full fault of our politicians, but is also at least in part due to the fact that television is not conducive to rational discourse. As aforementioned, when you look to read, you put aside all distractions. But this is not the case with the television.

Rather, the television is something that you listen to while you make dinner, build a TV cabinet, or write a paper. Very few people make it a habit to sit down to meditate upon the discourse offered by television.

But those who do are not much better off as their focus will be diverted as the programming goes to commercial or moves onto a new topic. This “Now...this” phenomena as Postman calls it, creates a tendency to pursue knowledge for its own sake (or for the sake of entertainment), rather than to enrich our lives. In the end, all televised discourse is purely for the sake of entertainment.

But just as other forms of discourse modeled the printing press, so too do other forms of discourse in our day today model themselves after the television. This can be evidenced in the written word. Compared to the zenith of the printing press, our newspapers (both printed and online) and books are not as conducive to logical analysis as they are in the past. Indeed, they are shorter, more conversational in nature, and generally more superficial. Even Amusing Ourselves to Death is written in a way where it could easily be read out loud as a speech live or on television. The watering down of discourse in America is spread across all mediums of the culture.

But there is a solution that we should consider important. Actually spending the time necessary to fulfill adequate non-trivial information from the online news sources that we read. Yes, I did say online news sources that we read. I would agree with Postman that the medium of television is not in any way shape or form conducive for discourse (but it does give us Doctor Who). One you find the information, take the time to something unusual for our culture, analyze the information to determine how it changes the way you are to live your life, whether that be through philanthropy, political activism, or a spiritual walk with God.

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