Sunday, September 13, 2015

Are we amusing ourselves to death? (Neil Postman & Media Ecology?)

I’ve a theory as to why John Stewart and Steven Colbert ‘retired’ from their former jobs as news satirists: they don’t need to satirize the news anymore because it now seems to satirize itself.

Take the 2016 presidential race, which already resembles an amusing Reality TV show with Donald Trump as he dominates polls and debates.  Political commentators may try to explain this quirky situation by saying something like this: voters crave authenticity so desperately that they don’t mind Trump’s political incorrectness.  If Trump’s political ambitions are a “circus act,” as CNN reported in this video before he began his campaign, then at least it’s an authentic one (so the reasoning goes).

Authenticity may explain Trump’s success, but something else is also happening.  Trump has celebrity status—he’s a real-estate tycoon turned Reality TV star.  Before him, many presidential and gubernatorial elections included celebrities (President Reagan in 1980, Minnesotan Governor Jesse Ventura in 1999, and Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003).


Reagan the actor
(Image from Wikipedia)

Jesse "The Body"
(Image from Wikipedia)

Arnold "The Governator"

(Image from IMDb)

With such precedents, it’s little surprise Kanye West declared himself a presidential candidate for 2020 (and Kim Kardashian a potential First Lady).

Kanye West rapping his way to the presidency?
(Image from The Washington Post)

Reality TV stars, celebrities, pop singers…as president?  What’s happening here?

A plausible answer was provided by Neil Postman, an educator who founded a discipline called “Media Ecology,” the study of how media and technologies change our world and our understanding of it.  Here’s the idea: new media and technologies don’t just add tools to our society—they dramatically change our way of life, especially the way we think.


(Image from Amazon)

In his book Technopoly, Postman explains why he uses the word “ecology” to describe media:

“I mean ‘ecological’ in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists.  One significant change generates total change.  If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment...  This is how ecology of media works as well.  A new technology does not add or subtract something.  It changes everything.”

(For folks familiar with chaos theory, Postman uses 'ecology' in the sense of a dynamical system, where one change can create butterfly effects with large-scale, unpredictable consequences.)

What does all this have to do with politics?  The technological shift from newspapers to screens, from lengthy dialogues (e.g., the Lincoln-Douglas debates) to digital sound bites (e.g., 'Tweeting’ political positions), changed the game of politics.  Media like TV and Twitter have made us think about politics less in terms of news and more in terms of entertainment.  TV and Twitter encourage flashy images and cursory comments, even online flaming (occasionally papers and books do too, but much less so).  As a result, politics has become less informative and more entertaining.  If it isn’t great showbiz, then it loses TV ratings and Internet traffic.

(Image from Amazon)

It's a problem Postman discusses in his most famous book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  In it, he draws on an aphorism by media scholar Marshall McLuhan:

the medium is the message.”

McLuhan meant that media do more than communicate information: media shape how people perceive information.

(A famous example is the Kennedy-Nixon debate—the first presidential debate to occur on live TV: people who watched the debate on TV felt Kennedy won, while people who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won—overall, Kennedy ‘looked’ better, which TV imagery magnified, but Nixon ‘sounded’ better, which radio amplified.)

Postman reworks (and in my opinion improves) McLuhan’s aphorism:

the medium is the metaphor.”

What is the medium a metaphor for?  For thought itself.  In other words, different media enhance different kinds of thinking.  TV and Twitter prompt quick thoughts good for brief reminders or short-term memory; newspapers and books suit deeper focus and intellectual analysis.  In fact, this difference is a special case of the differences between screen vs print media: screens work better for multitasking, print for reflection.

What does this mean for the future of politics?  In my opinion, Postman’s analysis is partially right but incomplete.  If TV and digital screens continue to dominate civic discourse, then expect plenty of entertainment but little substance.  On the bright side, however, new media have given new life to organizing.  Civil protests and meetups are often organized online now, which is much easier than door-to-door canvassing.  Clay Shirky makes this case in his book Here Comes Everybody, which argues that digital technology has lowered the transaction costs for organizing many people.

Perhaps in the end we get a paradox: new media positively affected civil organizing but negatively affected civic discourse.  What sorts of future leaders that’ll leave us with remains to be seen.

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