Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Amusing Ourselves To Death

Update:  I should have thought about another media change in our lifetime.  This article at Commentary today about the deterioration of the Supreme Court selection process, and thus of the cases they take and decide, fits in with this.  The depth-charging of the Robert Bork nomination via grandstanding and circus atmosphere occurred just as the number of TV channels multiplied.  Senators could now show off for the cameras.  They did, and have been doing it since. The necessity of a potential justice having to answer hostile and pointless questioning before a television audience has likely influenced who gets nominated. The medium has changed the process.

Sponge-Headed Scienceman ran across a paperback copy of the 1980s book Amusing Ourselves To Death and passed it along. Its initial premises are that we are not so much in danger of becoming enslaved according to an Orwellian externally imposed model, but by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World model, in which we embrace our enslavement because it gives us attractive things; and also, that the media by which we receive information exerts a powerful control on content, which in the case of TV is more negative than positive. WRT the latter point, television is exceptionally good at providing entertainment, much better than other media, but had the immediate effect of entertainment invading other content, such as news, instruction, debate and discussion, and even the future delivery of entertainment itself.

The first point is fascinating as it stands, and worth some contemplation, just to see where it takes you.  It neglects the existence of actual Orwellian countries, and slights growing external controls even within free places, but we can all see immediate truth in the idea of luxury, paths-of-least-resistance, and amusement undermining our ability to discipline ourselves to do difficult things.  Neil Postman, Amusing’s author identifies the telegraph as the major change in our communication. The scale of information delivered is so much greater with telephone, then radio, and then television that we balk at the comparison, but we have a ready analogy in our own era.  The growth of memory and power of computers is so great that we would barely recognize the 1960s versions as even being the same animal as even our portable devices now, yet we can see the continuity and similarity because we lived through it and observed it every step of the way.

What types of information is each medium good at? Postman shrugs that he like television in many ways because it does deliver a very good product of light entertainment, better than even the wealthy and the royal had in any era. His problem with it is that it pretends to do other things well, but is less good at them.

Here are a few bits I would like to add, to further spur your contemplation.

We have something of a false picture of printing exploding upon the 15th C.  It was only about a dozen European cities, and printers hard a hard time selling books.  Two thirds of them went under before 1500. The finally made their living with contract work for smaller items, such as devotional works for the Church, or notices for the kings and local nobles, and eventually pamphlets.  People didn't actually read books in the same manner we do today.  Copyists contracted for individual manuscripts that were decorated and beautiful. These were purchased either to be studied, or to be simply admired. They were symbols of literacy and culture, not always read. When they could be printed, they were less lavish and desirable, so printers had to send 100 copies to 100 illustrators to amke them valuable.  This was unsustainable. 

Newspapers came long after pamphlets, only as literacy became general. The powerful had sources and networks for news before printing:  the Church had two networks, the monks and the pilgrims, which intertwined.  Merchants developed networks to know where their goods might get good prices, and where there was danger brewing that signaled potential losses. Royalty and nobility had need of news for both military and diplomatic reasons and had their own system of messengers and spies.  (Tidbit: The invention of the novel and its quick popularity is now understood to be closely tied to the literacy of women.)The Dutch were the leaders in the later explosion of printed materials.  We remember the paintings, but there was much more reading and examining of maps and charts.

Next, the whole change in the landscape because of talk radio had yet to occur when Postman's book came out. It was a different type of content than people were used to in either newspaper or television, and it had different strengths.  I was more idea-focused than TV, less so than books - it was a middle ground. Television required attractive people.  It is now impossible to imagine a presidential candidate who is fat, bald, or short, and even lesser offices have few of those. But radio can do even ugly people just fine, so long as they can make their voice work.  

Rush Limbaugh used to laugh at the various liberal competitors who were put up against him, trying to capitalise on his seeming magic.  He maintained right from the start that it would not be possible without great changes, because what he did was primarily interactive.  Even with a screener, the whole enterprise would not have been convincing without real people calling in, and sometimes disagreeing.  It wasn't just an idea of fair play that caused him to put people who disagreed to the front of the line, it was shrewd marketing. His claim was that liberal talk radio could not survive that type of disagreement and interaction. He had a type of content that worked in that medium.  It is not the only way that radio can be used. NPR hangs on without it.  Yet notice that "A Prairie Home Companion" brought in people who were not professionals and had significant audience interaction (less so as the years went on) and "Car Talk" was interactive both between hosts and with the call-in audience.  Those were NPRs most popular shows. Local radio is interactive in a way that TV and newspapers are not, and is used for actually informing people about things (even when I disagree) rather than just providing them with impressions, as TV news does.


David Foster said...

"(Tidbit: The invention of the novel and its quick popularity is now understood to be closely tied to the literacy of women.)"

And I believe that even today, the majority of novels are bought & read by women.

Sam L. said...

NPR and PHC: Got tired of them, except for Car talk. NPR, too leftist; PHC, he got angry, and humor went out the door.

Rush's "liberal" competitors: they're angry with Trump, Trump voters, the "deplorables", and everyone else who won't "GET WITH THE PROGRAM", as our drill instructors yelled.