I grew up in a house where TV was banned. Sugar cereal and candy were frowned upon, but television, especially Saturday morning cartoons, was the ultimate forbidden fruit. Prohibition rarely works and in my case that proved true; I begged for gum in the line at the supermarket, enjoyed orange-flavored aspirin a bit too much and looked longingly at lollipops dropped in parking lots. But nothing trumped TV. I remember waking early and sneaking downstairs to illicitly watch as the test pattern segued into Looney Toons. Yet my stealth was insufficient -- one day in 1975 my mother caught me and kicked a hole in the TV's screen. I'll never forget the days as the shattered set lay on the curb waiting for the garbage crew to haul it away.
Her logic was pretty simple (I think the words "rotting your brain in front of that wretched tube" may have been used). She wanted me to read, to love books, to learn in a particular way. Was she right? Well she may have been and today I'll explore the affect that the evolution that media is having on the stories we tell, how we think and the culture that we create.
I'll try to avoid any preachiness which won't be easy since I'm actually lamenting the possible disintegration of the Western mind.
The phrase "Amusing Ourselves to Death" comes from book of the same name, written in 1984 by Neil Postman. I discovered it earlier this year when talking to a newly-met friend named Ethan Russell. Ethan is a fascinating guy - a generation older than I am, he was the photographer for the Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who. In a conversation that roamed around a lot (somewhere after telling me of the day he photographed John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed, left for LA and landed to hear Lennon had been shot) he made a reference to the book. When I clearly didn't get the reference, he immediately bought it for me and sent it to my Kindle. It blew me away. (buy for yourself here)
Postman calls his book a "lamentation about the most significant cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television". The effect of this is that "the content of politics, religion, education and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television".
He begins his argument with a series of vivid metaphors - describing the statues in American cities that typified the national character of particular era. In Boston it is the Minute Men and the Shot Heard Round the World; in New York; Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty; in Chicago, a statue of a hog farmer, representing the era in which America's industry revolved around cattle, steel mills, railroads and entrepreurship. Postman's city and image for modern America is Las Vegas which he calls "a metaphor of our national character and aspiration. . . a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. (It is) a city devoted to the idea of entertainment."
Postman uses a framing device for the book that is clever. He compares two great writers, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, both of whom predicted that mankind would destroy itself, though each saw it happening differently. "There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first - the Orwellian - culture becomes a prision. In the second - the Huxleyan - culture becomes a burlesque." Amusing Ourselves to Death puts the debate to rest; Clearly Huxley was right.
The critical point to Postman is this: he is NOT objecting to modern media because it serves up junk. In fact, he says that the most compelling stuff on TV is the junk (he's right, as any late night anthropoligist will tell you). His point is that "our media are our metaphors" by which he means that the media is a tool and the tool determines how we describe ourselves and this becomes our culture.
Two things strike me here. I grew up with my father telling me stories about the radio dramas of his boyhood - of Superman and other heroes. I loved them before ever saw them and the magic was in my imagination, in being granted the words and the luxury to point my own pictures. When the Lord of the Rings came out, it was so glorious and stunning to see my favorite book lovingly, respectfully, amazing brought to the screen. Yet a tiny part of me died knowing my children would never be able to close their eyes and imagine Gandalf as looking like anything other than Ian McKellan.
Postman was prophetic, it seems, in 1984, and yet he focused on television, at a time before TV had even become a thousand channel clown car. Clearly his arguments about 1-way passivity and the effects of image-cultures work for TV, but would he feel the same about the modern Internet and social network. The clip below tells me that he'd remain a staunch humanist; he lived long enough to see the Internet arise and understood it to be inevitable. The questions he raises are great ones though - particularly when asked whether kids should use computers in the classroom. It seems clear to us now that computers are a great learning aid, but it's actually more complex as any parent will tell you.
My children are my only reference point, so I'll use them. They've grown up around me, which means computers and media have always been around. Like most kids their age Theo (7) and Phoebe (5) beg for the computer, ipad and iphone. They've learned to type and are processing information differently than I did, more visually, more fluidly and in a more linkage-oriented manner. Hops from one subject to the next seem natural to them - their brains are wired for hyperlinking and it's an unstoppable force that we've embraced. Yet 3 months ago we moved houses and were slow to hook up the cable. And an odd thing happened.. . . .
They began to create. They didn't whine that Hannah Montana or SpongeBob weren't on - instead they both began drawing and writing more. They invented their own stories. They went outside. They amused themselves. And not to death, either. The TV remains unordered.
With that said, I also believe that Steven Johnson book Everything Bad is Good for You was ahead of its time; his provocative idea being that video games and other fun forms of media actually teach the brain to do things much more complex than previous, more structured tasks. We all have memories of that obsolete methods by which we were taught - in my case it was lots and lots of memorization. My kids are on the brink of oursourcing memorization. All they need to learn is how to ask questions correctly - Google with do the rest. This may sound like part of the brain will atrophy, the equivalent of kids with calculators who cannot add and subtract but you could also argue that the essence of education is learning how to learn, knowing what questions to ask and where to find the answers.
I have a question I've been asking a lot recently, especially as financial news gets worse, education, health care, military spending and social security all intertwine and circle the toilet bowl. I ask what has happened to the American Dream. What do we make? We used to farm, bend steel, produce cars, furniture, jewelry, everything. We made Stuff. Now we have ideas (on a good day), we pump gas and espresso (also on a good day) and rely more and more on countries that made real stuff. One exception. We make entertainment -- movies, shows, games, distractions. It is our #1 industry (I'd have to check the figures on this but it's certainly the one that nobody will take from us any time soon). We own cool and produce it from field to table.
So here's where close out the night and ask some hard questions. How much does media (especially as seen 26 years ago) matter. I'd say a lot, in our post-industrial age, amidst the roars of anger towards Wall Street coming from Zucotti Park. Rome is burning and as it smolders, we're updating our Facebook status to "Housewives of Beverly Hills is Over. OMG" What Postman saw, the trivialization that comes in a descent from thoughtful written discourse, has come to pass. In 1860, thousands of citizens would sit all day to listen to Lincoln debate Stephen Douglas for 10 hours straight, trading 1.5 hour remarks and 45 minute rebuttals. Today you'd be hard pressed to get a majority of Americans to name both candidates and their home states. We have become ourselves; like one of those cowboy towns in Blazing Saddles, building with only fronts, a land of shallow substance but lots of pretty pictures.
It's entertainment though, and as we know, showbiz is highly countercyclical. The worse people feel, the more scared, the more atomized, the more they want to run away, the more they seek the warm, soothing bath of entertainment. And that's fine - I do it too. A lot.
Lest we finish on a down note, it must be mentioned that massive cultural trends can be predicted but often change in an instant. Who would have predicted that the rising anger in the Middle East and towards American Banks would trigger Occupy Wall Street. You want to look further out? Try calling the 2012 Election. Have Fun.
I'll leave you with this thought experiment. Having played the Orwell Huxley Game, now pretend that its 2000 and I tell you that in ten years, 800 million people will be connected in an online system that uses their real names, knows who their friends are, their families, their likes and dislikes. It gives them views into the most intimate details of people's lives and allows users to peer into eachother's windows and lives all day everyday. It is owned by a single company. What would you have imagined?
Orwell? Zuckerberg? The ghost of Jeremy Bentham?
Well, one guy did imagine that; he also lived it in 2000 and his then girl-friend made a film called "We Live in Public". The guy, Josh Harris, I remember as being a highly eccentric uber genius of early Silicon Alley in New York. He has not been seen more recently though is rumored to live in a African village as some sort of tribal elder.
Enjoy, amuse yourselves, but not to death.