How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives
New York: Henry Holt and Company/Metropolitan Books ©2001
Whether or not you're a media "maker," if you're upright, warm, and breathing in the 21st century, you can't help but be a media consumer. Unless, that is, you intentionally take yourself off the grid, out of the flow of images and sounds, away to the remotest of remote places. Or unless the electricity goes out, you're out of range of a cell tower or Wi-Fi hot spot, or you don't have electricity in the first place. These days, that doesn't leave many locations on the planet where you can be unhooked. And if all but the most distant, disconnected, or disenfranchised are media consumers, the advent of small, portable, ubiquitous media gadgets and digital technology puts the power of production into the hands of any sufficiently interested eight-year-old — meaning nearly any one of us can also be (and often is) a media creator.
So what does this tsunami of "stuff," this abundance of "information," do to us as individuals, as members of families and groups, as workers, as societies? Two cultural observers, nearly twenty years apart, speak eloquently and relevantly about the impact of media on who we are, who we have become, and why we need to care about the influence, significance, and effects of the "media torrent."
More than twenty years ago, Neil Postman first published Amusing Ourselves to Death out of concern that the foundations of democracy — education, informed citizens engaged in the political process, civil public discourse — were disappearing. At that time, having, literally, just passed George Orwell's ominous demarcation point, 1984, and looking at the state of democracy and popular American culture in 1985, Postman thought to compare Orwell's vision of the potential future with that of Aldous Huxley's in Brave New World. Postman posits that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. With the benefit of hindsight that comes from standing within the first decade of the 21st century — and this period's cult of celebrity, Hollywood scandal and meltdown, news-as-entertainment, and corporate/lobbyist press releases passing for journalism — these authors' prescience is stunning and spooky. The disheartening part is that we didn't get the message.
As Postman declares, "contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. ...Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. ...Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."
In the short space of time between the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001 and the debut of Apple's iPod at the end of October that year, Todd Gitlin's Media Unlimited appeared. Recognizing that "the obvious but hard-to-grasp truth is that living with the media is today one of the main thing Americans and many other human beings do," Gitlin shows how this quality of hiding-in-plain-sight obscures and impairs. "The centrality of media is disguised, in part, by the prevalence of that assured, hard-edged phrase information society, or even more grandly, information age. Such terms are instant propaganda for a way of life that is also a way of progress. ...But we diminish the significance of media and our reliance on them in everyday life by classifying them as channels of information. Media today are occasions for and conduits of a way of life identified with rationality, technological achievement, and the quest for wealth, but also for something else entirely, something we call fun, comfort, convenience, or pleasure. We have come to care tremendously about how we feel and how readily we can change our feelings. Media are means. We aim, through media, to indulge and serve our hungers by inviting images and sounds into our lives, making them come and go with ease in a never-ending quest for stimulus and sensation. Our prevailing business is not the business of information but of satisfaction, the feeling of feelings, to which we give as much time as we can manage. ...In a society that fancies itself the freest ever, spending time with communications machinery is the main use to which we have put our freedom."
Postman chronicles the shift in language and communication from oral to written and, now, to image and explains the concurrent reduction in thinking capacity that seems to have accompanied our move into the Age of Show Business. Think Las Vegas as the center of the Universe. And although television is his primary target, he does not want to be considered as "making a total assault" on that medium alone because "anyone who is even slightly familiar with the history of communications knows that every new technology for thinking involves a trade-off. ...Media change does not necessarily result in equilibrium ...We must be careful in praising or condemning because the future may hold surprises for us."
Gitlin argues "that nonstop mass-produced images and sounds are central elements of our civilization; that any item may look and feel like a trifle — indeed, that may be its point — but the onrushing torrent is an enormity" that requires "attention and response — coping, in short." He asks why we should care: "Where's the harm" if "fun is just fun"? And answers that "in the face of avoidable violence, disease, inequality, oppression, poisoning, and other global afflictions, it makes sense to worry about the public cost of media bounty, to fear that it distracts from civic obligations, induces complacency and anesthesia, and works to the advantage of the oligarchs." At the same time, says Gitlin, "the critics rarely address the popular passion for illusion, the will not to know. They do not acknowledge the pleasures of the white-water trip down the torrent."
The goal of both books is to help those of us who live in a Disney-fied, Jerry-Bruckheimer-ized world of eye candy, glorified violence, faux news, and titillating sound bites to be aware of what's going on. Although he wasn't writing about the iPod, email blitzes, or the Internet, Postman admonishes that "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."
Gitlin proposes "that we stop — and imagine the whole phenomenon freshly, taking the media seriously not as a cornucopia of wondrous gadgets or a collection of social problems, but as a central condition of an entire way of life. Perhaps if we step away from the ripples of the moment, the week, or the season, and contemplate the torrent in its entirety, we will know what we want to do about it besides change channels."
Postman acknowledges that "Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus." He maintains that entertainment programs do not threaten our public health but that news packaged as entertainment does. "The problem, in any case," says Postman, "does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch."
In making the case for media literacy, Postman agrees with Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells, both of whom believed "that we are in a race between education and disaster." What Huxley "was trying to tell us [is] that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking."
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th Anniversary Edition by Neil Postman, with a new introduction by Andrew Postman, New York: Penguin Books, ©1985, 2005.