I’m born in a world that had no phones or internet. Social media or Netflix didn’t exist yet.
I grew up with time for daydreaming and playing off the screens.
Compared to Gen Z born during the IT revolution, my advantage is having a period of reference.
But even so, it’s hard for me to realize how the media and technologies have changed me.
I have a couple of observations though.
In middle school, I loved resolving difficult mathematical problems. I could spend days trying.
I must say I had nothing to distract me at that time.
Today, I’m less patient reading difficult materials and I need multiple breaks to go over them.
Not mentioning the decline of my capabilities of mental calculus and memorization.
Now what I’m interested in is knowing how deep is the change I’m going through.
How tech and media are shaping the view of myself and the world?
Is this change beneficial to me?
Technology: The Starting Point
If media is the goods delivered right to your house, technology is the carrier.
Simply said, technology is the physical part; media are how we use them.
It’s important to highlight this distinction. Technologies can be used in different ways.
Everyone knows that technologies are double-sided. They can enhance the quality of our lives or diminish it.
Neil Postman brought up seven questions worth asking about technology. I found them enlightening.
1-What is the problem to which a technology claims to be the solution?
2-Whose problem is it?
3-If we solve a problem most people do have, what kind of new problems we will have to face because of solving an old one?
4-Which people and institutions will be harmed by the new technology?
5-What changes in language are being promoted, enforced by new technology? What’s being gained and what’s being lost?
6- What shift in economic and political power is likely to result?
7-What alternative media might be made from technology?
Just asking these questions brings up the complexity of the topic.
Any media discussion will necessarily pass by the subjects of technology, politics, sociology, psychology, and human nature.
The Changes Technologies Bring
Neil Postman dedicated half of his book Amusing Ourselves to Death to the changes brought up by new technologies.
We’ll review here some of them.
The principal idea is no technology is neutral. As Neil Postman wrote:
“In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.”
A clock, for example, doesn’t only show time. It has this idea that time can be kept, saved, and managed. We are in control of our time and God or nature has a little play in it.
Before the telegraph, transportation and communication were one.
You couldn’t move information faster than the speed of a train.
As soon as the newspapers partnered with the telegraph, the nature of information changed.
Three characteristics took place—irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.
Information moved from being local and functional to global and useless.
Not only the information was empty, but you could do nothing about it except talking.
And when you try to make sense of this flood of information, all you can see is disconnected pieces.
While typography filters the collected information using analysis, the telegraph merely transports context-free information.
Does a picture worth a thousand words?
Not really. But for increasing sales, probably.
Photography means writing with light.
But what we can express with photography is limited.
A language can tackle a complex idea, unveil the unseen, or travel across time.
Meanwhile, photography is a fraction of reality without much of a context. it’s about the here and now. There’s not much to discuss because it’s presented as a fact.
Now, combine the biased information coming from the telegraph and photography. What do you obtain?
TV—the sum of decontextualized information delivered to your home.
These different technologies capture reality in different ways and are projected back to us.
So it’s legitimate to ask: how the media shape our view of reality?
How the Media Change Our Culture?
Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985 and it’s still relevant today.
Neil Postman explains how cultural change happens:
“A major new media changes the structure of the discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content–in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.”
Our culture moved from orality to writing to printing to images. And each time, our idea of truth changed with it.
We moved from “believing what we hear” to “believing what we read” to “believing what we see”.
What we think of intelligence changed as well.
In a word-centered culture, telling someone “Do I need to draw you a picture?” is an insult.
It means the person is stupid for not being able to understand the written content.
Now you can do this test. Think of any celebrity—scientists, actors, sports people…
What’s the first thing that came to your mind? How do they look or something they said or wrote?
As we’re living in a picture-centered culture, most likely you had an image in mind.
But what’s the benefit for us to know about the physical characteristics of someone?
The Rise of TV
TV is the great equalizer.
Everyone has access to it regardless of their age, income, or education.
There’s not a single topic that doesn’t cross the way of the magic box.
Politics, sports, news, religion, or education are all well represented.
For many, TV became a reliable source for understanding the world.
But as I mentioned before, TV has the biases of the telegraph and the photography—irrelevance, impotence, incoherence, free-context information, and fragmentation of reality are all embedded in it.
Combine these biases with the way TV informs and you have a problem—the promotion of a modified reality.
TV made entertainment the norm. Any topic needs to be presented as a show.
In general, a show doesn’t speak to our reason but to our emotions.
This is how over time, ignorance and knowledge become the same:
“Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplace, 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]
The internet, phones, and social media are the continuity of their predecessors.
Naturally, they intensify their biases and create new ones.
Compared to TV, entertainment is not the focus point of social media. It’s our attention.
Our attention is a product that we fight for.
The more time we get you to spend, the better it is.
Jaron Lanier goes a step further by saying that the product is not just our attention, “it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”
For example, when you receive a notification on your phone, you have thoughts you didn’t intend to have. In consequence, your behavior changes.
As neurologist Richard Cytowic explains it:
“Digital devices discretely hijack our attention. To the extent that you cannot perceive the world around you in its fullness, to the same extent you will fall back into mindless, repetitive, self-reinforcing behavior, unable to escape.”
We are constantly rewarding our brains for losing focus.
With time, our brain adapts to these experiences and rewires itself differently.
What Are We Losing?
In his excellent article The Erosion of Deep Literacy, Adam Garfinkle tackles the question.
As we’re rewiring our brain, we’re losing what Maryanne Wolf calls “deep literacy” or “deep reading”.
Deep literacy happens when readers dive into the work of writers. They understand their arguments and the meaning behind them, and ultimately, generate original insights.
We probably read more today than two centuries ago, but it’s a different type of reading. It’s skimming.
And when we take the habit of skimming through the internet, we do the same while reading a book.
This is why some people can advertise non-sense videos type “how to read a book a day”.
Deep literacy is the opposite of skimming and shallow thinking.
It requires focusing on a problem for a while. Maryanne Wolf calls this state “cognitive patience”.
Without it, we don’t have this internal conversation where we use abstraction and reasoning.
When we only use pictures and skimming to develop our thoughts, we lose the capacity of answering complex questions.
This explains many of the social and political tensions we’re witnessing today.
Are We Living in a Brave New World?
In comparing the dystopian world of 1984 with the one of Brave New World, Neil Postman wrote:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…
In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.
In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that we love will ruin us.”
From a Western perspective, it seems to me that we’re living in Huxley’s vision.
Technologies and media are playing a significant role in making this vision come true.
And it’s not about some conspiracy theory. For conspiracy implies that a group is secretly planning to do something harmful.
If you read my previous article, you’ll notice that nothing is hidden.
Edward Bernays explained publicly how he used media and group psychology to serve the interests of corporations and politicians.
In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley wrote:
“As the art and science of manipulation come to be better understood, the dictators of the future will doubtless learn to combine [techniques of propaganda] with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational [information] essential to the maintenance of individual liberty.”
Final Thoughts on Media
With each new technology and the medium that used it, we were reduced to something less.
First, we lost our spirituality. Serious religions became merely superstitions.
Then, we lost our reason to let our emotions take total control.
And today, we are just a bunch of data.
Now, we find ourselves naked, without protection, at the mercy of the few who know how to take advantage of our weaknesses.
From my article, you might think I’m against technologies and media. I’m not.
I’m enjoying them like anybody else.
All I’m saying is we need to be aware of what we’re losing and act accordingly. To pay attention to those imperceptible changes that affect our worldview.
Without awareness, we can’t take control of our lives. Without control, we’re just drifting away towards an unknown destination.
Article posted the 2 August 2021
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