Few Americans, one imagines, walked away from the first presidential debate this year feeling optimistic about national politics. “Chaotic,” “vicious,” and “ugly“ were some of the words used to describe the sharp exchanges between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Trump constantly derided Biden’s 47-year political record, and told him he lacked the “blood” to govern. Biden, in turn, called the celebrity president a “clown.” The whole thing appeared a bit like a reality TV show gone off the rails; this is perhaps appropriate, given that Trump was himself the host of a long-running reality TV competition.
Thirty-five years ago, New York University professor of communication Neil Postman predicted the political and social implosion we have witnessed in 2020. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman criticized television as a medium of information that, regardless of its content, caused Americans to understand all of public discourse through the lens of entertainment. Postman called television a propagator of “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.” That seems an apt description of the first presidential debate, as well as of broader trends we have witnessed this year. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that our digital age, in innumerable ways, aggravates our social and political distemper.
Postman the Prophet
The NYU professor was surely prophetic. “Our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics,” he cautioned. “We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic message.” What Postman perceived in television has been dramatically intensified by smartphones and social media. A videotaped confrontation between a black, male birdwatcher and a white, female dog owner in New York City’s Central Park in May was posted to Twitter and received 40 million views. The woman lost her job less than twenty-four hours later.
Postman also recognized that technology was changing our mental processes and social habits. “Television has by its power to control the time, attention, and cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their education.” Certainly this is truer now when our youth—many of whom are learning virtually (perhaps an oxymoron?)—are educated by the vast, untamed wilderness of the Internet and social media.
Yet all citizens are undergoing this same transformation. Our digital devices undermine social interactions by isolating us, as demonstrated by the remarkable artistic work of Eric Pickersgill. Pickersgill photographs deviceless people pretending to have mobile devices in their hands. He says: “This phantom limb is used as a way of signaling busyness and unapproachability to strangers, while existing as an addictive force that promotes the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.”
Moreover, Postman worried about who most benefited from this technological revolution. “Years from now, it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations, but have solved very little of importance to most people, and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved,” he cautioned. Today corporations like Google and Amazon collect data on Internet users based on their browsing history, the things they purchase, and the apps they use. When I get into my car on Sunday mornings, my iPhone, without my asking, reminds me of how to get to my church. As for new problems, we have increased addictions (technological and pornographic); increased loneliness, anxiety, and distraction; and inhibited social and intellectual maturation.
Many Americans tuned in to the presidential debate looking for something substantial and meaty that might perhaps clarify and help moderate the centrifugal forces of the most chaotic year of their lives. Instead, all they got was more of the same. But what did we really expect? It was simply another manifestation of the incoherence and vitriol of cable news and our social media feeds. “When, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility,” warned Postman.
Technology Is Never Neutral
As a student of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, Postman believed that the medium of information was critical to understanding its social and political effects. Every technology has its own agenda. Postman worried that the very nature of television undermined American democratic institutions. He noted:
The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even commercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting music.
This is far truer of the Internet and social media, where more than a third of Americans, and almost half of young people, now get their news. All one has to do is scroll or click to move from one piece of data to the next. Moreover, with smartphones now ubiquitous, the Internet has replaced television as the “background radiation of the social and intellectual universe.”
Yet these technologies are far from neutral. They are, rather, “equipped with a program for social change.” Postman cites research conducted in the 1980s that proved that virtual learning (via television) was inferior to learning from reading and person-to-person teaching. Many Americans gained insight into that truth this year, when their children’s virtual classes became disorderly zoos. We have the same experience every time we get sucked into some asinine, acerbic controversy or debate on social media. Reading news or commentary in print, in contrast, requires concentration, patience, and careful reflection, virtues that our digital age vitiates.
Politics as Entertainment
“How television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged,” observed Postman. In the case of politics, television fashions public discourse into yet another form of entertainment. He writes:
In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial. The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. . . . They tell everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who might buy them. . . . The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and towards making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy. The consumer is a patient assured by psycho-dramas.
Such is the case with the way politics is “advertised” to different subsets of the American electorate. The “consumer,” depending on his political leanings, may be manipulated by fears of either an impending white-nationalist, fascist dictatorship, or a radical, woke socialist takeover. Both of these narratives were on display in the first presidential debate.
This paradigm is aggravated by the hypersiloing of media content, which explains why Americans who read left-leaning media view the Proud Boys as a legitimate, existential threat to national civil order, while those who read right-leaning media believe the real immediate enemies of our nation are Antifa. Regardless of whether either of these groups represents a real public menace, the loss of any national consensus over what constitutes objective news means that Americans effectively talk past one another: they use the Proud Boys or Antifa as rhetorical barbs to smear their ideological opponents as extremists.
Is There Any Solution?
Postman’s analysis of technology is prophetic and profound. He warned of the trivializing of our media, defined by “broken time and broken attention,” in which “facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.” He warned of “a neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity.” That’s a good summary of the digital age. Yet does Postman offer any solutions to this seemingly uncontrollable technological juggernaut?
Postman’s suggestions regarding education are certainly relevant. He unequivocally condemned education that mimics entertainment, and urged a return to learning that is hierarchical, meaning that it first gives students a foundation of essential knowledge before teaching “critical thinking.” Postman also argued that education must avoid a lowest-common-denominator approach in favor of complexity and the perplexing: the latter method elicits in the student a desire to make sense of what perplexes him. Finally, Postman promoted education of vigorous exposition, logic, and rhetoric, all being necessary for citizenship. Implementing these proposals—as is already happening in our nation’s budding classical school movement—is necessary for forming an intelligent, capable, and reflective citizenry.
Another course of action is to understand what these media, by their very nature, do to us and to public discourse. “The medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan said; and that message, manifested in much of our news and social media feed, is distracting, vapid, and stupid. In a word, it is entertainment. We must, as Postman exhorts us, “demystify the data” and dominate our technology, lest it dominate us. We must identify and resist how television, social media, and smartphones manipulate our emotions, infantilize us, and weaken our ability to rebuild what 2020 has ravaged.
Many who watched the presidential debate would agree with Queen Victoria’s famous dictum: “We are not amused.” But unless we get a hold of what has brought us to the politics and public discourse of 2020, we may very well amuse ourselves, and our polis, to death.