Posts Tagged “culture”
Nov 4, 2019
This is the third and last part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. It is going to be long! And there might be typos and slightly-nonsensical sentences, as it’s not edited for the most part. Remember to read the most important ideas of the book in part one of the summary, and the notes about TV’s way of thinking taking over different areas of life, in the second part.
The medium is the metaphor
Today we must look at Las Vegas as a metaphor for the US’ national character and inspiration. Las Vegas is entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.
American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display; that, in fact, half the principles of capitalism as praised by Adam Smith or condemned by Karl Marx are irrelevant.
Indeed, in America God favors all those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers.
Culture watchers and worriers (those of the type who read books like this one) will know that the examples above are not aberrations but, in fact, clichés. In short, descent into a vast triviality.
How we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.
I use the word “conversation” metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages.
Another example: The information, the content, that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist (could not exist) in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.
The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.
This book is an inquiry into, and a lamentation about the most significant American 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.
If all of this sounds suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is the message, I will not disavow the association. In the Bible you can find intimations of the idea that forms of media favour particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture.
Lewis Mumford, for example, has been one of our great noticers. He is not the sort of a man who looks at a clock merely to see what time it is. Not that he lacks interest in the content of clocks; but he is far more interested in how clocks creates the idea of “moment to moment”. “The clock is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes”. In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.
In the book “Technics and Civilization”, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. The inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by Enlightenment philosophers.
I bring all this up because what my book is about is how our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics. What I mean to point out here is that the introduction into a culture of a technique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of man’s power to bind time but a transformation of his way of thinking (and, of course, of the content of his culture).
Start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, eg. that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature of the ravages of time. The idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of the eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.
Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever “languages” we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
Media as epistemology
The book’s intention is to show that a great media-metaphor shift happened in the US, which resulted in public discourse becoming dangerous nonsense.
This is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology, not aesthetics. There’s on objection to TV’s junk. In fact, that’s the good part. Besides, we measure a culture not by its trivialities, but by what it considers important. TV is in fact more dangerous when it tries to be serious. And, sadly, many intellectuals and critics often ask more serious stuff to appear on TV.
The important part of epistemology that is relevant to this book is the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come.
Media sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, goodness, or beauty; and it’s always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth. Excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22.
The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of the form of expression. It must appear in its proper clothing or it’s not acknowledged. But the book doesn’t make the case for epistemological relativism: some ways of truth-telling are better than others. In fact, the book argues that a TV-based epistemology has grave consequences for public life.
Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.
Three points to defend against possible counterarguments:
- The book doesn’t claim that changes to media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds of in their cognitive ability. The argument is limited to saying that a new medium changes the structure of discourse, by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favouring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content.
- The epistemological shift has not yet included everyone and everything. Other forms of conversation always remain. However, that TV and print both exist doesn’t imply parity.
- TV-based epistemology pollutes public communication, not everything.
In short, as TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines.
The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quality of printed matter but because of its monopoly. Today there’s more printed matter available than before, but from the 17th century to the late 19th, printed was virtually all that was available.
The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere, eg. in how people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in “Democracy in America”. “An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a metting, and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say ‘Gentlemen’ to the person with whom he is conversing.”
The typographic mind
In the 19th century in the US, it was normal that politicians had seven-hour debates, and for people to “take the stump” and talk for hours about some topic. Who was the audience? By current standards, their attention span was extraordinary.
The language of many of these debates and speeches was strongly influenced by writing: speeches were written in advance, and rebuttals, too. So, what are the implications for public discourse of a written, or typographic, metaphor? What is the character of its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses of the mind does it favour?
To engage in the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. Not that analytic thought isn’t possible outside of the written word: instead, the point is to show the predisposition of a cultural mindset.
Even in commerce, the resonances of rational, typographic discourse were to be found. If we may take advertising to be the voice of commerce, then its history tells very clearly that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those with products to sell assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical. Indeed, the history of newspaper advertising in American may be considered, all by itself, as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment.
In the 1890s, advertisement started using illustrations, photographs, and nonpropositional use of language with the introduction of slogans. By the turn of the century, advertisers dropped reason to became depth psychology and aesthetic theory.
The peek-a-boo world
Telegraphy did something Morse didn’t foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country”. It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. The telegraph not only permitted a conversation between Maine and Texas: it insisted upon it. And that would require the content of that conversation to be different to what people were used to.
As Henry David Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.
The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents.
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch #twitter “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.
Photography also helped replace language as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. Excellent example on p. 75.
Crossword puzzles became popular at just that point. This suggests that where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use: crossword puzzles, cocktail parties, radio shows, TV game shows, and Trivial Pursuit.
Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining. Of course there’s nothing wrong with entertainment itself: the problem is when we try to live in it.
We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. The goal of the book is to make this epistemology visible again: try to demonstrate that TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.
The age of show business
The assumption that new media is just an amplification of old media is wrong, in the same way that cars are not fast horses. What is TV? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?
The problem is not that TV presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, ie. entertainment is the supraideology of all discourse on TV. The assumption is that everything presented in it is for our amusement and pleasure.
Sustained, complex talk does not play well on TV. It can be made to play tolerably well, but this it not TV at its best, and it is not TV that most people will choose to watch.
It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest. Films, records, and radio are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the culture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse are not insignificant. But TV is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances.
It is not merely that on the TV screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse; it is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.
Prior to the 1984 presidential election there was a TV “debate” between the two candidates. They had five minutes to address complex questions, so complexity, documentation and logic can play no role. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what TV does best. The relevant question became “who had KO’d whom?”, and the answer was determined by the “style” of the men.
Now… this (news on TV)
“Now… this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see.
TV didn’t invent this world view, but in TV’s “news of the day” we see the “Now… this” mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.
It’s frightening to think that the perception of the truth of a report rests heavily on the acceptability of the newscaster. The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance. If on TV, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
All TV news programs begin, and, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, which fact I have taken as evidence for the dissolution of lines of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertainment. If there were no music, viewers would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.
Another feature of the stylized dramatic performance is the length of each news story: 45 seconds.
The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that TV news is designed as a serious form of public discourse. Imagine what you would think of me, and this book, if I were to pause here, tell you that I will return to my discussion in a moment, and then proceed to write a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhattan Bank. You would rightly think that I had no respect for you and, certainly, no respect for the subject. And if I did this not once but several times in each chapter, you would think the whole enterprise unworthy of your attention. [How does this affect newspapers, paper and digital?]
One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on TV for their clues as to how to respond to the world. In watching TV news, they, more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [4chan, fake news?]
I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a TV news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. For those who think it’s hyperbole, I offer the following description of TV news by Robert MacNeil, executive editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil-Lehrer News-hour”. The idea, he writes, “is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required… to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”
Everyone had an opinion on the Iranian Hostage Crisis, because everyone is entitled to an opinion and it’s useful to have one for when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions. What is happening is that TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. And in saying that TV news entertain but don’t 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?
“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies” (Walter Lippmann) The reporters who cover the White House are ready and able to expose lies, and thus create the grounds for informed and indignant opinion. But apparently the public declines to take an interest. To press reports of White House dissembling, the public has replied with Queen Victoria’s famous line: “We are not amused”. Perhaps if the President’s lies could be demonstrated by pictures and accompanied by music the public would raise a curious eyebrow. We do well to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate hearings. But we do not have anything like that here. Apparently, President Reagan does is say things that are not entirely true. And there is nothing entertaining about that.
But there is a subtler point to be made here. Many of the President’s “misstatements” fall in the category of contradictions–mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly both, in the same context, be true. “In the same context” is the key phrase here, for it is context that defines contradiction. Disappear the context, or fragment it, and contradiction disappears. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.
There is nothing “Orwellian” about it. The President does not have the press under his thumb. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.
I do not mean that the trivialisation of public information is all accomplished on TV. I mean that TV is the paradigm for our conception of public information. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, TV induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror TV. [Memory of people complaining that you needed a lot of context to understand the news]
Shuffle off to Bethlehem (religion on TV)
It is the perfect TV sermon–theatrical, emotional, and in a curious way comforting. For TV, bless its heart, is not congenial to messages of naked hate. You never know is watching, so it is best not to be wildly offensive. There are at present thirty-five TV stations owned and operated by religious organisations.
Two conclusions: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.
Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. Not everything is televisable, or, more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence.
There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.
It’s fair to say that attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, just as it is for “The A-Team” and “Dallas”. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want”. That’s an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user-friendly”.
I believe I’m not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. There are counterarguments to the idea that TV degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion. The difference is that the accoutrements are integral parts of the history and doctrines of the religion itself. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.
The danger is not that religion has become the content of TV shows, but that TV shows may become the content of religion.
Reach out and elect someone (politics on TV)
In “The Last Hurrah”, a character claims that politics is the greatest spectator sport in America. In 1966, Ronald Reagan used a different metaphor: “Politics is just like show business”. If it was the former, there would be several virtues to attach to its name: clarity, honesty, excellence. If it’s the latter, politics’ main business would be to please the crowd, and its principal instrument would be artifice. The idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising. [How new is this?]
This chapter’s purpose is to show how advertising has devastated political discourse. But first, its effects on commerce itself: it has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. Capitalism, as originally conceived, is based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, eg. children cannot make contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.
The TV commercial is not at all about the products to be consumed, but about the potential consumers of products. About their fears, fancies, and dreams. This would come as a great surprise to Adam Smith. The TV commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has accomplished this in two ways: (1) by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns (see examples on p. 129), and (2) because the TV commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americas would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of TV commercials (see examples on p. 130). Short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. Such beliefs would naturally have implications for our orientation to political discourse.
Some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life. The point is that TV does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, TV makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by “better” being more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. And therein lies one of the most powerful influences of the TV commercial on political discourse. We are not permitted to know who is best at being President, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.
History can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. A book is all history, everything about it takes one back in time, and it promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. In 1980, Nobel Prize winner Czelaw Milosz remarked in his acceptance speech that our age is characterised by a “refusal to remember” and he cited, the “shattering” [this is the word used in the book! I wonder what Mr. Postman would have thought of modern social media –Esteban] fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. Slowly, we are being rendered unfit to remember.
In the Age of TV, our information environment is completely different from that it was in 1783; we have less to fear from government restraints than from TV glut; in fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America; therefore, the battles for liberty must be fought on different terrains from where they once were. Eg. the banning of books from school libraries is now largely irrelevant, and distracting; but TV clearly does impair the student’s freedom to read.
Those who run TV do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture of Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously [Social media? YouTube?] But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual [What about documentaries and such?].
Tyrants have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. That is why tyrants have always relied, and still do, on censorship.
Teaching as an amusement activity
We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street” [Evidence?] It does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational; it is, in promoting what might be called a TV style of learning. And this style is hostile to book-learning or school-learning. As a TV show, it doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV.
It is important to add that whether or not “Sesame Street” teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant. John Dewey observed that the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes… may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history… For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future”. And one is entirely justified in saying that the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the US is not happening in its classrooms but in the home, in front of the TV, and under the jurisdiction not of school administrators and teachers but of network executives and entertainers. I don’t mean to imply that the situation is a result of a conspiracy or even that those who control TV want this responsibility.
TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. You will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment.
We might say there are three commandments that form the philosophy of the education which TV offers:
- Thou shalt have to prerequisites: each program must be a complete package in itself, no previous knowledge is to be required. This is why you will never see a TV program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. In doing away with the idea of continuity in education, TV undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
- Thou shalt induce no perplexity: perplexity is the superhighway to low ratings. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
- Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt: arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn TV into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, TV-teaching always takes the form of storytelling. Nothing will be taught on TV that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment. See references to relevant studies on p. 151. One of the conclusions from several studies is that “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”. [I wonder if that would also hold for modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube]
What is of greatest significance about “The Voyage of Mimi” (a multimedia educational project, see p. 149) is that the content selected was obviously chosen because it is eminently televisible. Why are these students studying the behaviour of humpback whales? I would suggest that the project was conceived by someone’s asking the question “What is TV good for?” not “What is education good for?” The students will learn from that project that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of an entertainment, and ought to.
The Huxleyan warning
Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. Those who speak of this invite the charge that they are wimps or public nuisances. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
What is happening in American is not the design of an articulated ideology, but it’s an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, discussion or opposition. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology, but to be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple [This book was published in 1985].
Now, about remedies for the affliction: not everyone believes a cure is needed, and there probably isn’t any. In spite of this, two solutions are offered: (1) we must not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position, for Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus. To suggest this is to suggest nothing at all. Almost equally unrealistic is to expect nontrivial modifications in the availability of media. That said, one must applaud the efforts of those who see some relief in limiting certain kinds of content on TV (eg. banning political commercials in the same way cigarette and liquor commercials are banned), even if I’m not very optimistic about anyone taking the suggestion seriously. Improving the quality of TV programs is not good, either: TV serves us most when presenting junk-entertainment, and it’s precisely when trying to cover more serious topics that it’s a menace.
One of the problems is that we haven’t learned what TV is. What is information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intelligence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between information and reason? What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking? These questions are the means through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talking back to their TV. For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers. This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to TV (eg. a central thesis of computer technology, namely that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data, will go unexamined).
Only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over TV, or the computer, or any other medium. And how is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind:
- The first is nonsensical: to create TV programs whose intent would be to show how TV recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc. It’s nonsensical because TV would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, the programs would have to be vastly amusing.
- The second is desperate: to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem, namely our schools. The process rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less reason than usual to expect it to, because schools haven’t even gotten around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of TV on their students. Besides, it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. We are in a race between education and disaster, and we need to understand the politics and epistemology of our media.
Nov 3, 2019
This is the second part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. See the first part on this blog. The third and last part will be my full, mostly unedited notes.
EDIT: Added link to the last post.
In TV news are presented not only fragmented, but without context, consequences, or value. In short, without essential seriousness: as pure entertainment.
The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness conveyed by the actor/reporter. Political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
No matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim of TV news as serious public discourse. Imagine seeing that in a book!
One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. One is drawn into the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [Does this help explain 4chan and fake news? –Esteban]
TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation (in the CIA/KGB sense): misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial–which creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. We are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
Contradictions, ie. mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly be both true in the same context, have ceased to exist because the context has disappeared or fragmented, and thus there cannot be any contradiction. The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.
Two main ideas: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented as entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.
There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.
Attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, and they do so by offering people something they want. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need.
When religion is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment, and that distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.
Politics are also taken over by TV, and so the main idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. That is, advertising. In contrast, some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life.
Advertising has spoiled capitalism (there is no possible rational decision-making with modern advertising), and also politics, which have adopted advertising’s way of working: short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. In fact, TV makes it impossible to know which politician is better (= more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of economic systems, etc.) than whom. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.
As a TV show, “Sesame Street” doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV. Whether or not it teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant because the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: collateral learning of attitudes is often more important than the spelling or geography lesson, for these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.
TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. No one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment. And education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment (see references to relevant studies on p. 151: “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”). [How would this compare to modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube? –Esteban]
This part of the summary explores the specific ways in which TV’s way of thinking has taken over politics, news, education, and religion. Remember to check the first part of the summary for the most important ideas in the book, and check the third and last part of the summary if you want the full notes. Or, you know, read the book, because it’s great!
Nov 2, 2019
This is the first part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This first part will cover the eight most important ideas in the book. The second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. The third and last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. That last part is going to be long!
EDIT: Added links to the other posts.
How a society conducts conversations has a strong influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture. Eg. “the news of the day”, ie. disconnected events happening far away, did not (and could not) exist in a world that lacked the media to advertise them quickly and efficiently. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.
As TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines. However, this book is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology (in this book’s context, epistemology is “the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come”; see excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22), not aesthetics. That is, there is no objection to “junk” on TV, and that’s in fact its good part.
Telegraphy gave a new meaning to public discourse by making relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.
The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents. This makes us “unable” to remember history, which has many negative implications.
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. It was to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch. “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning: not understanding implications, background, or connections, but instead knowing of lots of things. Excellent example on p. 75. [Compare to social media –Esteban]
We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.
Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. [This book was published in 1985! –Esteban]
This is a very interesting book, although some sections are a little bit abstract. However, in general it is fairly easy to read, and everything is explained quite well.
If you have any interest in ways of thinking, especially at a society level, or politics, or media, this book is highly recommended.
Jan 24, 2014
These are my notes for “Coding Freedom”, a sociology/anthropology book that analyses the free software community. You can download it for free from its website, or buy a paper version. These notes cover only the history of free software, which I found very interesting even if I basically knew it already.
1970-1984: The commodification of software
During the 1960s and part of the 1970s, most hardware was sold with software and there was no software patent or copyright protection. Programmers in university labs routinely read and modified the computer source code of software produced by others.
In 1976, just as companies began to assert copyrights over software, Gates wrote a letter to a group of hobbyists chastising them for, as he saw it, stealing his software: they had freely distributed copies of Gates’ BASIC interpreter at one of their meetings.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the US software industries dominated internationally. Amid fears of losing ground to foreigners, US legislators launched an aggressive campaign to develop and fund the high-tech and knowledge economic sector and encountered little friction when accepting software patents in 1980.
1984-1991: Hacking and its discontents
In the late 1970s and the 1980s, corporations started to deny university-based hackers access to the source code to their corporate software, even if the hackers only intended to use it for personal or noncommercial use. This infuriated Richard Stallman, who became a “revenge programmer” (whole, fascinating story in p.68) and ultimately founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 and then wrote the first draft of the General Public License in 1989. In 1984 he actually said “I am the last survivor of a dead culture. And I don’t really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel like I ought to be dead”.
1991-1998: Silent Revolutions
Trade groups intensified their efforts to change intellectual property law largely through international treaties. They worked with law enforcement to strike against “pirates”, pursued civil court remedies against copyright infringers, launched moral education campaigns about the evils of piracy, and pushed aggressively for the inclusion of intellectual property provisions in the multilateral trade treaties of the 1990s. For example, through TRIPS, patents had to ultimately be open to all technological fields.
In the meantime, Linux would gain momentum in companies: managers would say they were not using Linux, but techies would say “yes… but don’t tell my boss”.
1998-2004: Triumph of open source and ominous DMCA
The term “open source” (less philosophical and more technical) was created and won, and the DMCA was passed, which criminalised all attempts to circumvent access control measures (ie. DRM), practically giving copyright owners technological control over digitized copyright material.
Misc final notes
For most developers, acceptance of free software rarely led to political opposition producers of proprietary software, but made them develop a critical eye toward practices such as abuse of intellectual property law and tendency to hide problems from costumers: “Free software encourages active participation. Coporate software encourages consumption”.
One of the most profound political effects of free software has been to weaken the hegemonic status of intellectual property law; copyright and patents now have company.
And that’s it. I hope you enjoy it. Go download the book if it sounds interesting or you want to learn more about hacker culture and free software.
Feb 4, 2012
This is something I’ve been thinking about for months, but took me a while to give it a shape in my mind and put it into words. I’m not done exploring these ideas, I might write about them again.
Edit: forgot to thank Manu for her feedback on a draft of this post.
It all started with a couple of conversations I have had with different people, about different topics. The common denominator was me not doing/buying certain stuff for “non-consumer reasons”. Some examples (feel free to skip):
Apple. I don’t buy anything from Apple. The most important reason is that I don’t believe in a closed software ecosystem controlled by a single company (even if I know it has advantages in the short term). There are other reasons, like them trying to fight the right to jailbreak or them supporting SOPA.
Sony/PlayStation. Although I do own a PlayStation 2, many things that have happened since then made me decide not to buy a PlayStation 3 (yes, there are many PS3 games, some of them exclusive, that make me drool and I’d love to play them). Partly closed systems, partly Sony fighting users’ rights on court and chasing homebrew developers, partly the draconian terms of the PSN.
Being vegetarian/vegan. I’m actually not a vegetarian (but I’m somewhat close; long story), but I understand and support vegetarianism and veganism. I was pretty surprised that one concrete person I talked to about this hadn’t even thought of it as a form of belief or activism (the person thought vegetarians were, more or less, people who “don’t like meat”).
Note that I don’t claim to be right about these beliefs or about the best/most practical way to support them, but that’s completely besides the point I’m trying to make, namely that many people seem pretty surprised by those decisions, as if anything that doesn’t maximise your short-term “joy” or minimise the money spent was irrelevant when spending money. As if it was unthinkable not to be a Homo economicus. I mean, money has essentially zero influence on your happiness once you have enough to live comfortably. Thus, I fail to see how money should be a deciding factor for close to nothing at all (again, assuming you already have enough to live without worrying about money).
I think of myself, first and foremost, as a human being (with values, morals, empathy, etc), not as a consumer or a money-spender. For me it follows that mainly caring about money and “consumer values” is wrong, because that consumer identity I have can never override most of my other identities. Even feeling the need to write about this and explain it is pretty awkward. It seems to be a suspicious position to be in, as if you had to explain that not making “consumer values” the centre of your life doesn’t make you a crazy extremist. Part of this awkwardness is somewhat confirmed by a comment I have heard several times, something along the lines of “it’s your loss”, as if eg. having a PlayStation (as opposed to other consoles, or devoting your time to reading more books or jogging or playing board games or whatever) had to be more important than anything else I might care about.
But this is not just a philosophical question, there are two practical points in all this. The first is that how and where you spend your money matters and lot. Let’s say there’s two companies providing the same product. Company A offers it cheaper and uses illegal, poorly paid workers, while company B is more expensive but its workers have normal working conditions (this is of course a simplification for the sake of the argument). When you give your money to company A, you are saying that using illegal workforce with a shitty pay is ok as long as they give you a better price. You are saying than you, deep inside, care more about saving a couple of bucks than about having normal working conditions. Those decisions, our decisions, are what make companies behave in this or that way.
The second practical point is that if one makes all decisions based only on “consumer values”, you are defining your path of least resistance. And it’s big companies and lobby groups that have all the money and resources to make that path of least resistance something that makes you do whatever is in their interest (and possibly against yours, in the long term). And I know it’s human nature to save energy, be lazy, not think too much about every single thing we do, etc. I do that myself all the time. What kills me is not that people don’t resist, is that people don’t seem to see it as a limitation in themselves, but as a weirdness in anyone that tries to.
Dec 7, 2011
This is my summary of “Bodies”, by Susie Orbach. It’s a book about the relationship to our body and how it affects us and our life. As this book is sort of similar to “Who are we” in the sense that there are several general points being made and most of the book are stories supporting or explaining those points, I’m not writing my notes about each chapter separately but doing a more “proper” summary. I’ve also written a mini-review below.
There has never been a “natural” body: bodies have always been the expression of a specific period, geography, sexual, religious and cultural place. However, today only a few aspirational and idealised body types are taking the place of all possible bodies. We’re losing body variety as fast as we’re losing languages. Again like with languages, there’s a critical period for “body acquisition”. We can feel alienated of our own body (for the rest of our lives) if we don’t learn to feel comfortable with it in that critical period.
The individual is now deemed accountable for his/her body and judged by it, turning “looking after oneself” into a moral value. A search for contentment around the body is a hallmark of our times, and a belief in both the perfectible body and the notion that we should accede to improve it has contributed to a progressively unstable body.
The body is becoming akin to a worthy personal object. Body transformation is today less of a social ritual, and more wanting to produce an acceptable body (wounded soldiers vs. TV contestants on p. 84-85). We seem to believe that almost anything about the body can be changed by the individual, turning plastic surgery into a consumer item: a treat, like a holiday. Sexuality has to be conjured and performed, it doesn’t exist or flow naturally.
The new grammar of visual culture, which is not even real (Photoshop), produces that even children photos are “enhanced”, generating frustration and even making people lose accurate records of their visual history (very interesting notes on p. 87-90). We fall into the trap of us “enjoying fashion and beauty”, believing we’re agents instead of victims, but we aren’t being creative with our bodies or having fun with them: we feel at fault for not matching up to the current, impossible to reach imagery. We take for granted that looking good for ourselves is going to make us feel good, find faults in our bodies and say that it makes us feel better, more in control, to improve them.
I generally liked the book, but sometimes I thought it was a bit too long. Many of the important points are already made in the introduction, and the rest of the chapters are more stories and references supporting the initial points. Worse yet, I sometimes found those arguments or stories not completely believable or convincing (eg. using controversial material like some Harry Harlow experiments or Victor of Aveyron’s story to support her points). In other cases, some relatively bold claims were not backed up by references, which made me feel could be not representative or poorly-researched or, at least, made them weaker because of a lack of context.
However, the book is well written and made me reconsider several things, which is what books like this should do. Recommended if you’re interested in psychology or if you find it intriguing to learn about our relationship to our physical bodies. Although I skipped them in the summary, some of the stories (like the man who didn’t want to have legs) are pretty mind-blowing and interesting in themselves.
Aug 25, 2011
This is my summary of the book “Who are we — and should it matter in the 21st century”, by Gary Younge, about identity and nationalism in a globalised world. This time, instead of following the structure of the book, I’m going to do something similar to what Josh Kaufman does with his summaries: extract the most important ideas from the book. I think it’s especially appropriate in this case because most of the book is stories that support the author’s theories. After the ideas there’s a selection of quotes taken from the book. I hope you like it.
The notion that identity is a refugee for the poor and dispossessed is misguided. The most chained to identity are often the powerful, because they have the most to lose. They don’t just call it “identity”, they call it “tradition”, “heritage”, or simply “history”. See example of girl whose parents would be disappointed if she married someone from another race or religion (p. 30), and “Just assume everybody is gay” theory on p. 38.
Everybody has an identity, but the more power it carries the less likely they’re aware of it. Those that have never been asked “how to you balance childcare and work?” are less likely to think that their masculinity is anything but the normal state of affairs. Because their identity is never interrogated, they’re likely to think they don’t have one. Finally, power seems to have many parents, but the brutality it takes to acquire it is an orphan (those who will claim they didn’t have anything to do with slavery will proudly attach themselves to events at which they were not present and hail achievements to which they contributed nothing).
Every identity has gatekeepers, official or not. They decide who belongs and who doesn’t by ignoring the complexity and enforce the archetype, on what basis and to what end. Official gatekeepers hold great power, for with certain pieces of paper come certain rights. The demanded threshold for entry (which keeps on changing according to the political, social and economic demands of the time, even as they insist they’re authenticating a timeless truth) is typically higher than the norm for those inside. Example of official gatekeepers for the “Jewish” identity, and the difference between Jewish for the Estate, and Jewish for the rabbis, on p. 98.
Identities change over the years, because they’re rooted in people’s lives and aspirations. Occasionally, a single event, such as a terrorist attack, a riot, election, murder or judicial ruling, might appear to change people’s sense of themselves instantaneously. Examples on p. 131, 132. In order to rally people around a flag and anthem, nationalism must convince people not only that their nation has given them exclusive human qualities but that those are eternal. What masquerades as a return to the ancient roots is the invention of tradition, making a desperate bid to prove that the identity doesn’t change (by, in fact, changing it).
We all have multiple identities. But that doesn’t mean that certain identities don’t come to the front sometimes, according to the circumstances. Example on p. 146. Failing to understand the existence and importance of multiple identities is not just a philosophical problem. Example of unemployed Bangladeshi being addressed by the British government as Muslims rather than poor people who could be assisted economically.
Minorities attacking/comparing with other minorities is wrong. Three reasons: (1) it treats identities as interchangeable, when they’re not (they affect different things and work in different ways), (2) it assumes there’s a “league” of better/worse identities, which is wrong and even dangerous, and (3) putting minorities against each other undermines the potential to form coalitions, necessary to eradicate the discrimination.
Identities are rooted in material conditions. They confer power and privilege in relation to one another. Example of British Muslims alienated and excluded on p.180-182, and comparison to American Muslims on p. 184. Refusing to acknowledge the root causes for these problems helps no one. That the response is through religion is no surprise either (“attacked as X, they defend themselves as X”). When Muslims do bad things, it’s never about individuals, national customs, or political/economical context. It’s about Islam.
The question is not whether you draw a line for acceptable and non-acceptable, but who gets to draw it (power) and where they draw it (ideology). No process of integration can have much moral meaning without some reckoning with where power lies and how it might be differently distributed. Very interesting analysis of the Danish cartoons on p.189-193 (in summary, “it was a tale of power, hypocrisy and a crippling lack of self-knowledge”). Finally, see Sarkozy’s quote below. About it: if this relationship is going to work, France will also have to become more Islamic. This is only a problem for those who believe that Islam doesn’t have anything positive to offer France. Otherwise, it is up to them to explain why any self-respecting Muslim would want to integrate in a society that sees his or her faith as incapable of making a valuable contribution.
Globalisation brings identity extremism. The smaller the world seems and the less control we have over it, the more likely we are to retreat into the local spheres where we might have influence. The reason is that globalisation undermines democracy and the sovereignty of the nation state, which results in a dislocation of power because you don’t get to vote for corporations. Feeling they live in a world where they don’t have much control, many resort to the defence of “culture”, the one thing people think they have a grip on. Not only nationalism is on the increase, so too is the number of “nations” seeking to be recognised. The bigger the EU becomes, the smaller the areas where a strong sense of identity may take hold. Some notes about “national languages” on p. 220, 221.
Integration of Islam in European countries
Whether I like it or not, Islam is the second biggest religion in France. So you've got to integrate it to make it more French. —Nicolas Sarkozy
Globalisation brings identity extremism
What ends as Jihad may well begin as a simple search for a local identity, some set of common personal attributes to hold against the numbing and neutering uniformities of industrial modernization and the colonizing culture of McWorld. —Benjamin Barber, _Jihad vs. McWorld_
The lie of nationalism
Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-conciousness. It invents nations were they didn't exist. —Ernest Gellner, _Thought and Change_
Humans being all mixed
Marble cake, crazy quilt and tutti-frutti are all better metaphors of human physical variability than is the x number of races of humankind. —Roger Sanjek
The danger for minority languages —and for all small languages— is to be excluded from a select circle of languages, for which it is commercially viable to develop system of voice recognition or of translation by computer. —Ned Thomas
May 11, 2011
Looking for the mouse
Transforming free time into cognitive surplus is not just about social tools. We need motive and opportunity, too. The open question is what benefits will emerge from our ability to form this time into cognitive surplus. At the lolcats end, experimentation won’t stop, but we can’t count on new kinds of socially beneficial activities just happening. Creating a participatory culture with wider benefits for society is harder than sharing amusing photos.
While it’s tempting to imagine a broad conversation about what we should do as a society with the possibilities and virtues of participation, society doesn’t work like that. The essential source of value right now is coming less from a master strategy and move from broad experimentation, that’s why we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things. We’re still disoriented by having two billion new participants in a media previously operated by a small group of professionals (this is the paradox of revolution: the bigger the opportunity, the less anyone can extrapolate the future from the present).
Lessons for social software (in three categories):
Creating new opportunities: Start small (it’s harder to imagine how a service will be useful when it doesn’t have many users; but if they only work when large, they’ll probably never grow); Ask “Why?” (different people have different motivations, not necessarily close to that of the designers; take into account); Behaviour follows opportunity (if you want different behaviour, you have to provide different opportunities); Default to social (not opt-in; Delicious vs. Backflip story on p.196).
Dealing with early growth: A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand (there’s a medium size that doesn’t have the advantages of intimacy or of big communities); People differ. More people differ more (when given a narrow range, people converge; but when anyone can create media, the array of interests goes full crazy; in participatory systems, “average” is an almost useless concept; people running the service can’t insist on participation being equal or universal; long tail of participation); Intimacy doesn’t scale (but you can cluster participants into smaller groups, like Yahoo! mailing lists); Support a supportive culture (“quiet car” behaviour, p.202).
Adapting to users’ surprises: The faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt; Success causes more problems that failure (success brings people, not always with realistic expectations or good will; trying to prepare in advance works very poorly in real life; “if you want to solve hard problems, have hard problems”); Clarity is violence (groups tolerate governance only after enough value is generated to make the burden worthwhile; since it builds over time, rules have to follow, not lead); Try anything. Try everything (the single greatest predictor of how much value we get of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody).
And that’s it. I hope you enjoyed it :-)
May 11, 2011
This is the second part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Culture” and “Personal, Communal, Public, Civic”. EDIT: You can read parts one and three in this blog.
Day care fines story on p.131. Knowledge is the most combinable thing we have, but taking advantage of it requires special conditions (“The Economics of Knowledge” by Dominique Foray): (1) size of the community, (2) cost of sharing knowledge, (3) clarity of knowledge shared (also for people outside the group) and (4) culture (ie. community’s set of shared assumptions about its work and member relations with one another).
Society is shaped as much by inconvenience as by capability. When things that used to be inconvenient stop being so, things change. Some inconvenience-managing professions, like restaurant critics, stop being so useful or change their role when it’s easy to access dozens of opinions of people who have eaten there. A common objection to the spread of shared knowledge is that we need professional skill (“you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned it from Wikipedia”). Two weaknesses of this thought: (1) you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned in Encyclopaedia Britannica either, and (2) it suggests you should always choose professional over amateur, which nobody does (even people using that argument).
Personal, Communal, Public, Civic
We come from an era in which sharing was thought to be inherently (not accidentally) limited to small groups. Big change in social production is not utopia: throwing off old constraints won’t leave us without constraints, just with new ones. For most groups, the primary threat is internal: the risk of falling into emotionally satisfying but ineffective behaviour (p.163-164).
Increased communication and contact with others isn’t risk-free, and new opportunity requires ways to manage risk (couch surfing vs. “Brides on Tour” story, p.166-168).
Our new freedom to act in concert and in public is good at a personal level, but also others. Sharing has a spectrum, with four interesting points:
Personal. Hobbyists, think icanhascheezburger. Between uncoordinated individuals.
Communal. Inside a group of collaborators (eg. meetup group for post-partum depression).
Public. People actively creating a public resource (e.g. the Apache project).
Civic. Groups actively trying to change society, like Pink Chaddi.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have lolcats of fan-fiction: it’s that the latter groups are harder to create and maintain (“what you want” vs. “what you need”), and they benefit society more.
No fixed set of rules for governing groups that create social value (eBay cheater story, p.177-178), but two universals: a group must defend itself against external and internal threats. The former are more attention-getting, but the latter are more serious in keeping a group of volunteers committed and focused. Understanding how to create/maintain a group like this is one of the great challenges of our era.
And that was it for the second part. The next part will cover the last chapter, “Looking for the Mouse”.
May 10, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus”, “Means”, “Motive” and “Opportunity”. EDIT: You can read parts two and three in this blog.
1. Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus
The Gin craze in early 1700 in England didn’t stop because of laws. It was treated as the problem to be solved, but was the reaction to the problem (dramatic social change and inability to adapt). Since World War II, increases in GDP and others have forced the industrialised world to deal with free time on a national scale. We didn’t watch good or bad TV: the decision to watch it often preceded any concern about what was being shown. TV became the gin. We have known the effects of TV on happiness for long, but it kept growing because it was the reaction to the problem (free time).
Wikipedia is roughly 100 million hours of human thought. Americans watch roughly 200 billion hours of TV a year: that’s 2000 Wikipedias annually. Something that makes today remarkable is that we can treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects. Society never knows what to do with a surplus at first (hence “surplus”). Passive participation is easier… but things are changing (less TV watched, not pure consumers anymore). Some TV executives think that youngsters behaviour will change when they grow up and they will want to just sit in front of the TV (“milkshake mistake”, p. 13).
Lessons learned from the Ushahidi service (p.15): People want to do something to make the world a better place. They will help if invited. Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers for trying new things. No need for fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus, phones are enough. One you have figured out how to harness, other can replicate your technique.
For the first time in history, being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens.
Story of Korean boy band fan activists, p.32. The old view of online as a separate space was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most people you knew in your daily life were not part of it.
Edgar Allan Poe quote, p.47 (summary: “multiplication of books is evil”). Correct, but freedom has compensating values, like increase of experimentation. It’s not choosing between trash or classics (p.50), we get both. And we can’t get new classics without experimenting.
We have to rethink the basic concept of media: it’s society’s connective tissue. It’s how you know about anything more than 10 yards away. It used to be separated into public media and personal media (letters, phone calls). People surprised at new behaviour assume behaviour is a stable category, but it isn’t: human motivations change little, but opportunity can change a lot.
Story about Grobanites for Charity on p.67-68. The important question is not “where did they find the time?”, it’s “why create a separate entity for themselves?”. They didn’t take any money for expenses (see p.75)! Reference to experiment when people are less interested in a task after being paid for it, p.71.
There are two intrinsic personal motivations: be autonomous and desire to be competent. Social motivations: connectedness/membership and sharing/generosity. Benkler and Nissenbaum (p.78) conclude that social motivations reinforce personal ones.
When coordinating group action was hard, most amateur groups stayed small and informal. With today’s tools, we see a new hybrid: large, public, amateur groups. Globalisation isn’t necessarily about size, but about scope: you can have a tiny global organisation. Amateurs generally use public access not to reach the broadest possible audience, but people like themselves. If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy, competence, or generosity and sharing, they might take you up for it. Only pretending might make people want to revolt (Angry Drunken Dwarf story, p.94).
Story of experiment rejecting unfair splits (p.106-108). People derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoing, but doesn’t happen against computers.
Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.
Mar 16, 2011
This is the fourth (and last) part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. It covers the two final chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”. You can see parts one, two and three in this blog.
The Great Symbol Drain
Examples of “blasphemous” ads in p. 164-165. It’s not blasphemy but trivialisation conducted by the commercial enterprise, against which there can’t be laws. The adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else, and thus religious or national symbols are made impotent quickly, drained of sacred or serious connotations. [Question: The US has stayed quite religious…] But mass-advertising is not the cause of the great symbol drain: such cultural abuse could not have occurred without technologies to make it possible and a world-view to make it desirable. The erosion of symbols is followed by loss of narrative.
Symbols are made meaningless by frequent invocation and indiscriminate contexts in which they’re used. Sometimes the argument is made that the promiscuous use of serious symbols is a form of irreverence, the antidote to excessive or artificial piety. But there’s nothing in the commercial exploitation that suggests that excess piety is a vice: business is too serious for that (example in p. 167).
Two main points: (1) cultures must have narratives (the alternative is living without meaning, the ultimate negation of life), and (2) narratives are given form by symbols that call for respect, even devotion.
In Education, we improve the education of our youth by improving the “learning technologies”. To the question “why should we do this?” the answer is “to make learning more efficient and more interesting”. The answer is considered adequate, since in technopoly efficiency and interest need no justification. But it’s usually not noticed that the answer is about means, not ends. It offers no way to educational philosophy, and even blocks it by focusing on the how, rather than why. What do we believe education is for? One discouraging answer is to get persevering students a good job, or to compete with the Japanese or Germans to be the first economy. Neither is grand or inspiring and suggests that the US is not a culture, but an economy.
The technopoly story is progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, technology without cost. It doesn’t have moral centre. It puts it its place efficiency, interest and economic advance, and promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells instead a life of skills, technological expertise, ecstasy of consumption. The purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing technopoly.
The Loving Resistance Fighter
The response to living in a technopoly can be divided in two: what individuals can do and what the culture can do. For individuals, can’t give a how-to (that would be what “experts” do), just a principle: be a loving resistance fighter. “Loving” means keeping the symbols and narratives close to your heart, despite the confusion, errors and stupidities. As for “resistance fighter”, people who can resist technopoly are those who:
don’t pay attention to polls unless they know the questions asked, and why
refuse to accept efficiency as pre-eminent goal in human relations
have freed themselves from the magical power of numbers, don’t regard calculation as an appropriate substitute for judgement, or precision as synonym of truth
refuse to allow psychology or other “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense
are at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and don’t confuse information with understanding
don’t regard the aged as irrelevant
take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honour, and to “reach out and touch someone” expect the person to be in the same room
take great narratives of religion seriously and don’t believe that science is the only system of thought capable of truth
know the difference between sacred and profane, and don’t wink at tradition for modernity’s sake
admire technological ingenuity and don’t think it’s the highest form of human achievement
A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, and therefore require scrutiny, criticism and control.
What the culture can do: the best way to achieve a revolution is through school. Even though education is itself a technology, this is persistently scrutinised, criticised and modified.
The most important contribution schools can make is to give a sense of coherence in their studies, sense of meaning and interconnectedness. Modern secular education fails because it has no moral, social or intellectual centre. No set of ideas permeates the whole curriculum. It doesn’t even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, unless it’s someone who has “skills” (a technocrat’s ideal: a person without commitment and no point of view, but with plenty of marketable skills).
It’s obvious that schools cannot restore religion to the centre of the life of learning, no one would take “learning for the greater glory of god” seriously. Some people would have us stress love of country as a unifying principle, but experience has shown that this invariably translates into love of government, in practice indistinguishable from Soviet or Chinese education. Others would put “emotional health” as the core of the curriculum, but that’d make a curriculum irrelevant since only “self-knowledge” is considered worthwhile. It’s hard to suggest a theme for a diverse, secularised population, but the theme from Jacob Kronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” (the story of Humanity’s creativeness trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance and disorder) is proposed. That would require joining art and science, past and present (as it’s a continuous story).
Virtues of adopting ascent of Humanity as a scaffolding: it doesn’t require changing the list of subjects much; it’s a theme that can begin in the earliest grades and extend through college; provides a point of view to understand the meaning of subjects (each subject would be a “battleground” of intellectual struggle that has taken and still takes place). The curriculum itself may be seen as a celebration of human intelligence and creativity, not a meaningless collection of diploma requirements. And the theme of ascent of Humanity gives a non-technical, non-commercial definition of education. Becoming educated means being aware of origins and growth of knowledge, to learn how to participate, even as listener, in that ascent. It’s an idea- and coherence-centred education, that stresses history, scientific mode of thinking, disciplined use of language, knowledge of arts and religion, and the continuity of the human enterprise.
History is in some ways the central discipline. It’s not really one subject, but all subjects have history. Teaching biology today without teaching what we knew or thought we knew is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product, and deprives students of a sense of meaning of what and how we know. Children would thus begin to understand that knowledge is not a fixed thing, but a stage in human development with past and future. Semantics should be taught, and would give the capability of critical thought (a reading test doesn’t invite to ask whether or not what’s written is true; or if it is, what is has to do with anything).
Finally, two indispensable subjects to understand where we came from:
History of technology, so students understand the relations between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so they begin informed conversations about where technology takes us and how.
Religion, with painting, music, technology, architecture, literature and science intertwined. Specifically, course on comparative religion. Deal with religion as expression of human creativeness to answer fundamental questions. This course would be descriptive, not promoting any religion.
To summarise, all subjects would be seen as a stage in humanity’s historical development. There should be no illusion that this education will bring the thrust of the tech-world to a halt, but it will help begin and sustain serious conversation to distance ourselves from it and criticise and modify it.
Mar 10, 2011
This is the third part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. You can read parts one and two on this blog. This part covers chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.
The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology
Example of lie detector on p. 92,93. In technopoly, accuracy in insisted on for machinery. The idea embedded in the machine is ignored, no matter how peculiar. People who have lived together for years would know if they get along, but in technopoly subjective knowledge has no official status: it must be confirmed by tests administered by experts. Machines eliminate complexity, doubt and ambiguity. They provide numbers we can see and calculate with. What’s significant about this “magic” is that it directs our attention to the wrong place, and by doing so it evokes wonder, not understanding. We are encouraged to ignore the ideas inside machines, which makes us blind to their ideology. Example of stethoscope in p. 97-99. Two key ideas promoted by the stethoscope: medicine is about the disease, not the patient; what the patient knows is untrustworthy, and what the machine knows, reliable. Another reason for physicians to be estranged from their own judgement: everyone with a headache wants a CAT scan (roughly 60% are unnecessary). They’re done as protection against malpractice suits. Thus medical practice has moved to total reliance on machine-generated information, so have the patients. Also, doctors are reimbursed by insurance based on what they do, not the amount of time spent with a patient. It’s more profitable to do CAT scan than to investigate. They ideas promoted by this domination of technology can be summarised as: Nature is an implacable enemy that can be subdued only by technology means; problems created by technology can only be solved by more technology; medical practice must be focused on disease, not patients (it’s possible to say that the operation/therapy was successful but the patient died); information from the patient cannot be taken as seriously as from a machine.
Does this lead to better medicine? In some cases, yes. Would medicine be better were it not to totally reliant on technology? Yes. very few doctors are satisfied with technology’s stronghold on medicine. [Question: no references to back up that claim? seriously?]
The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology
McCarthy: “even machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs […] it’s too hot in there, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here”. Redefinition of “belief”, simulating an idea is the same as replicating it; most important, rejecting the idea that mind is a biological phenomenon. Part of humans’ intangible life can be simulated by a machine in some respects, but never duplicated. This kind of language is not merely picturesque anthropomorphism: it’s implied that computers have will, intentions or reasons, so humans are relieved of their responsibility over its decisions, something bureaucrats love. “The computer show…” and “The computer has determined…” is technopoly’s equivalent of “It’s God will…”.
Computers have served to strengthen technopoly’s hold to make people believe that technological innovation is synonym with human progress. We have lost confidence in human judgement and subjectivity and devalued the singular capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions and replaced this with faith in the powers of technical calculation. Emphasis on the technological processes and little in the substance. Believing most serious problems (personal and public) are due to lack of fast access to information is nonsense: people dying of starvation, families braking up, mistreated children, crime, etc. Lack of “technological modesty”: if digital computers had been around before the atomic bomb, people would have said the bomb could hot have been invented without it. But it was, and many things are possible without it.
This chapter considers mechanisms that act like machines but aren’t normally thought of as part of technopoly’s repertoire. Questions give direction to our thoughts, generate new ideas, venerate old ones, expose facts, hide them. Examples in p. 125,126.
Examples of “statistics gone wild” on p. 129. Stephen Jay Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man” explores the malignant role of stats in “measurement” of intelligence. Three points from it: (1) reification (turning an abstract idea into a thing): we use “intelligence” for a variety of human capabilities of which we approve, but if we believe it to be a thing, we’ll believe scientific procedures can locate and measure it; (2) ranking requires a criterion for assigning individuals in a single series; thus we assume that intelligence is not only a thing, but a single thing, located in the brain and accessible to the assignment of a number; (3) this restricts and biases us, but it would go unnoticed because numbers are the ultimate test of objectivity. Fundamental subjectivity will become invisible and the objective number will become reified.
It’s not unreasonable to argue that polling of public opinion is good. Our political leaders must have some information about what we believe to represent us. The problems are:
The forms of the questions condition the answers.
Promoting the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted with the pollster’s questions.
Ignoring (generally) what people know about the subjects they’re queried on.
Shifting responsibility between political leaders and their constituents. Congressmen were expected to use their own judgement about what was in the public interest.
Not all statistics statements are useless, just that like any other technology it tends to go out of control. In technopoly, we tend to believe that only through autonomy of techniques we can achieve our goals. But will we control them or will they control us?
The argument is not with technique, but with techniques that become sanctified and rule out the possibilities of other ones. When a method of doing things is so associated with an institution that we don’t know what came first, it’s hard to change the institution or even imagine alternative methods for achieving our purposes. So it’s necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they’re good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty.
Scientism is three interrelated ideas that, together, stand as one of the pillars of technopoly: (1) natural sciences provide a way to unlock the secrets of both the human heart and the direction of social life; (2) society can be rationally and humanely reorganisation according to principles social science will uncover, and (3) faith in science can serve as a belief system that gives meaning to life, sense of well-being, morality and even immortality.
Social science bashing in p. 147-155. Social researchers tell their stories essentially for didactic and moralistic purposes, like Buddha, Confucius or Jesus. They never discover anything, only rediscover what people were once told and needed to be told again. So Scientism is the desperate hope, wish and illusory belief that the standardised procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority.
And this is the end of the third part of my summary. The fourth and last one will cover the last two chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”.
Mar 8, 2011
This is the second part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman (see the first one on this blog). It covers chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.
From Technocracy to Technopoly
By the end of the 18th century, technocracy was well underway. The greatest invention of the 19th was the idea of invention itself. We had learned how to invent things, and why became less important. The idea that if something could be done, should, was born in 19th century and along with it, a belief in all principles through which invention succeeds: objectivity, efficiency, expertise, standardisation, measurement and progress.
Technocracy gave the idea of progress, and necessarily loosened our bonds with tradition. Technocracy filled the air with the promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organisation. It also speeded up the world and turned time into an adversary technology could defeat. Citizens of technocracies knew that science and technology didn’t provide philosophies by which to live and clung to their fathers’ philosophies. The opposing world-views (technological and traditional) coexisted in tension.
Technopoly eliminated one of those thought-worlds. It did so not by making them illegal, immoral or unpopular, but invisible and therefore irrelevant by redefining religion, art, family, politics, history, truth, privacy, intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly is a totalitarian technocracy.
In 1911, The Principles of Scientific Management, by Frederick W. Taylor, contains the first explicit and formal outline of assumptions of the thought-world of technopoly. These include the beliefs that the primary, if not only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency; that technology calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement; that human judgement can in fact not be trusted (for it is ambiguous and complex); that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured doesn’t exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided or conducted by experts. Workers would have to abandon any traditional rules of thumb, and in fact were relieved of any responsibility to think at all. Led to the idea that techniques of any kind can do our thinking for us, which is among the basic principles of technopoly.
The Improbable World
In the Middle Ages, people believed in the authority of their religion no matter what. Today, in the authority of our science, because the world is incomprehensible to most of us and it’s hard to keep a comprehensive and consistent picture of the world.
Information being the new god of culture solves the information scarcity problem, but says nothing about information gluttony. It’s strange that few have noticed. The problem in the Middle East, South Africa or Northern Ireland, or with starvation or crime rates is not lack of information. Yet, technopolists insist that the world needs more information. Information is elevated to a metaphysical status: it’s both the means and ends of human creativity.
One way to define technopoly is a society with an inoperable information immune system (cultural AIDS). That’s why it’s possible to say almost anything without contradiction provided you begin with “a study has shown” or “scientists now tell us that”. And it’s why in technopoly there can be no transcendent sense of purpose or meaning, no cultural coherence. Information is dangerous if there’s no higher purpose it serves.
The presumed close connection among information, reason and usefulness began to lose its legitimacy toward mid-19th century with telegraph. This created the idea of context-free information, ie. the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social or political decision-making and action. Technopoly’s milieu is one with damaged ties between information and human purpose: information appears indiscriminately directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and high speeds, disconnected from theory, meaning or purpose.
It’s a world in which the idea of human progress has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but no accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies.
The Broken Defenses
Technopoly is the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes orders from technology. One way of defining technopoly is “what happens to a society when defenses against information glut have broken down”. A society needs to remove or protect from information, like an organism protects itself from unwanted (incompatible?) cell growth. [Question: what does this mean in a globalised world with so many migrants?]
Social institutions do that by denying people access to information, but mainly by assigning the weight/value one must give to information. Example of court of law (no personal opinions, no mention of previous convictions, etc.) in p. 73. Schools have a curriculum, implying that what is outside of it, a serious student ought not think about. Together with family and political party, they are a culture’s information immune system. The most imposing institutions are religion and state. They manage information through myths and theories about fundamental questions.
Theories are (or lead to) oversimplifications. That is their function: to oversimplify to allow people to organise, weight and exclude information. [Question: how does this relate to “not taking sides” (staying in “the middle ground”)?]
The peril of trusting social, moral and political affairs to bureaucrat is great, as a bureaucrat is indifferent to both content and totality of a human problem. “I have no responsibility for the human consequence of my decisions, only for the efficiency of my part of the bureaucracy, which must be maintained at all costs”.
Experts in technopoly claim dominion not only over technological matters, but also social, psychological and moral. There’s nothing that hasn’t been technicalised and relegated to the control of experts. The role of an expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, eliminate what has no bearing of a problem, and use the rest to assist solving it. This works very well for technical problems (rockets, sewers). Less well when technology and human purposes might conflict, like architecture and medicine. Disastrous for situations that cannot be solved by technological means and where efficiency is irrelevant, like education, family, law, etc.
In technopoly, experts have the charisma of priestliness. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. They call sin “social deviance”, evil “psychopathology”. Sin and evil disappear because can’t be measured or objectified, and thus not be dealt with by experts. The rest of the book explains why it cannot work, and the pain and consequences of trying.
And this is the end of the second part of my summary. The next part will cover chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.
Mar 6, 2011
This is the first part of my summary of the book “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology”, by Neil Postman. Especially after reading this book, I feel forced to say (and insist on) that this is just my take on this book: it’s subjective and incomplete (parts that I found less interesting, agreed less with or I found less value in I cover less, or not cover at all). That said, it’s not like I agree with everything in my summary, but I found _that _the featured parts were good food for thought.
The book has an introduction and 11 chapters. This first part of the summary will cover the introduction and the first two chapters, “The judgement of Thamus” and “From Tools to Technocracy”.
The main argument this book explores is not between humanists and scientists, but between technology and everybody else. Most people believe that technology is a friend. It is a friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most give because its gifts are bountiful. The dark side it that it creates a culture without moral foundation, undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology is both a friend and enemy. The book tries to explain when, how and why technology became a particularly dangerous enemy.
The judgement of Thamus
Socrates story (p. 3,4). We can learn from it that it’s a mistake to think that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect: it’s always a blessing and a burden.
Radical technologies create new definitions for old terms, and this happens without us being fully concious of it (e.g. telegraph changed “information”, TV changed “political debate”, “news” and “public opinion”). It’s insidious and dangerous, different from the process of creating new terms. This is what Tamus tried to teach us: technology redefines all the words we live by, and it doesn’t pause to tell us. Or us to ask.
Example of technologies that creates new conceptions of what is real: giving marks in school (first done in 1792). Hard to imagine a number/letter is a tool or technology, or that by using a technology to judge someone’s behaviour we’re doing something peculiar. If a number can be given to the quality of thought, why not to mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence or sanity? Psychologists, sociologists and educators find it quite hard to work without numbers. We believe without numbers we can’t acquire or express authentic knowledge. Not arguing it’s a stupid or dangerous idea, just peculiar (even more so that not so many people find it peculiar). Saying that someone should be doing better work because has a IQ of 134, or that someone has 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo, Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.
Embedded in every tool there’s an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world like this rather than like that (example of clock in p. 14,15). There are “knowledge monopolies” created by important technologies: benefits and deficits not distributed equally (example in p. 9). But it’s not a well-planned conspiracy, as if the winners know well what’s won and lost. Such prejudices are not evident at first, hence one can’t conspire to be a winner. Also, technological change is neither additive or subtractive, but ecological. If you remove caterpillars from a habitat, you don’t get the same without caterpillars, you get a different environment.
What we need to consider about the computer is not efficiency as a teaching tool: we need to know in what ways it’s altering our conception of learning, and how, with TV, it undermines the old idea of school. Need to know if technology changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the power, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience misses the significant question: in what sense new media alters what is meant by religion, church or even god?
These changes are strange and dangerous, and there’s only a dull, even stupid, awareness of what it is. In part because it has no name. The book calls it Technopoly.
From tools to technocracy
One taxonomy of cultures based on their relation to technology: tool-using cultures, technocracies and technopolies. All types can be found on the planet, but the first is disappearing. Until 17th century, all cultures were tool-using, but with considerable variation on the tools available. The main characteristic is that their tools were largely invented for two things: solve a specific and urgent problem of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world of arts, politics, myth, ritual and religion. Tools did not attack (or intended to) dignity or integrity of the culture. Culture actually directed the invention of the tools and limited their uses.
To avoid oversimplification on the definition of tool-using cultures: the quantity of technology is not relevant in the definition; they may be ingenious and productive in solving problems of the physical environment; and they’re not impoverished technologically (may even be surprisingly sophisticated). The name tool-using derives from the relationship between tools and the belief system or ideology. Tools are not intruders, they’re integrated into the culture. We may say tool-using cultures are theocratic or at least unified by some metaphysical theory. Such theory provides order and meaning to existence. It makes it hard for technics to subordinate people to its own needs.
In technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, to some degree, to their development. Tools are not integrated into the culture, they attack it. They bid to become the culture.
Kepler played a role toward the conception of a technocracy: a clear separation of moral and intellectual values, one of the pillars of technocracy. Bacon was the first technocracy man, but it took some time for others to follow: people came to believe that knowledge is power, humanity is capable of progressing, poverty is a great evil, and the life of an average person is as meaningful as any other. It’s not true that God died, but it lost much of its power and meaning, and with it the satisfactions of a culture in which moral and intellectual values were integrated.
And this is the end of the first part of my summary. I’ll post the second one soon, covering chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.
Mar 19, 2010
Some time ago I ordered a bunch of books from Book Depository. One of them was Confessions of a Public Speaker, and another one was The Geography of Thought, a book about the differences between how East Asians and Americans think and behave.
The book explores the difference between East and West thinking and how those societies work. By using “East” the author mostly means China, Japan and Korea, and by “West” he means most Europe and America, although it’s particularly focused on the US. It starts with the old Chinese and old Greek philosophers, showing how they lived, how their societies were like, and how they approached knowledge. From there it explains how those initial philosophy approaches and how people behaved reinforced each other in a kind of spiral. Some of the findings are pretty interesting or revealing, and the book is full of examples and experiments used to discover differences in how we think. It was pretty cool that I found out things not only about Asians, but also about Americans. Actually now I have a pet theory about why I tend to dislike Hollywood films :-D
Not everything was good though. Things I didn’t like about it:
I found the language needlessly complex, it took me a chapter or two to get used to it
Some of the points felt repeated over and over again
Some (admittedly not many) parts felt a bit like a pissing contest, like somehow trying to work out which culture was “better”; I’m sure that wasn’t the author’s intention, but the wording of some parts could have been better
In summary, a quite good read on a very interesting topic, with a couple of relatively minor issues.