THIS POST IS COAUTHORED BY NEIL BROWNE & JOSEPH SEIPEL
In 1985 Neil Postman referred to Brave New World as the intellectual godfather of his Amusing Ourselves to Death. If you haven’t read Postman’s work and its revision 2 decades hence, we certainly hope you will. And as you think about the book, ask what it says about us that 25,000 people on any given night in a major city decide that the most rewarding thing they can imagine doing is attending the moral and mental circus produced by that knowing ringmaster Donald Trump.
The effects of video games, television, social media, and the Internet on our level of illiteracy says something highly important about human proclivities. Large numbers of us will use whatever pleasure pill, additive, consciousness-altering liquid or fun diversion promises to excite our senses and divert our attention from lives that leave us otherwise frustrated and empty. Seduced by these temptresses, our attention span and cognitive abilities wither.
We must quickly say that there is nothing essentially wrong with television, social media, video games or liquid refreshment. In fact, used for developmental purposes and in moderation, they are remarkably fertile complements to our more “stodgy inspirations”—meaningful discussions, reading nuanced, complex books and essays, poetry with emotional kick, and documentary films.
But Postman understood what happens when market forces and the human yearning for pleasure are permitted to shape the direction in which information flows are shaped.
His focus in 1985 was on television, but one can graft his arguments onto all of our more modern pleasure sources.
He graphically points out the difference in modern democratic election jousts and those in pre-television eras.
“The first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.” (Postman, 44).
That quote is an excerpt from Amusing Ourselves to Death, highlighting what public discourse looked like in America over 150 years ago. What does this seemingly foreign form of discourse reveal about the candidates? About the voters?
Obviously without knowing specifically what information was exchanged throughout the 7 hour debate, it’s not possible to comment on the intelligence levels of the candidates making the arguments nor the audience tuning in. However, it is fair to say that the attention span of both cohorts is absolutely exceptional by today’s standards. Can anyone imagine a 2016 presidential debate between say, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that was scheduled for 7 hours? Can anyone imagine Donald Trump speaking for 3 hours? What would he say? And how many times would he say it? One can say “winning”, “amazing”, “elegant”, and “huge” as the substance of your sentences only so long.
But let’s give Donald the benefit of the doubt. He prepares a 3-hour speech and its brilliant. He outlines an ingenious sure-fire strategy for persuading the Mexican government to pay for the wall that they will build to keep them out of the U.S. and expounds in great detail upon each of the 14 tenets of that strategy. He presents an economic analysis diagnosing how America got to a slumbering economic recovery, and walks us through not one, not two, but five different solutions for how we can abate the problem. And finally, he pulls out a Quran and reads to us 11 separate passages that he believes contribute to the case that Islam is a religion of violence, and not of peace, to which he uses to make his bigger point: we have to tighten our national security policies.
How many members of the audience make it through the full speech awake? How many make it through without checking twitter? How many get bored and leave? How many actually listen to and reflect on each of Trump’s policy proposals and then form thoughtful assessments of the probable effects?
From our perspective, Postman is onto something timeless in importance when he argues that political discourse is a reflection of the dominant form of media at the time. In 1860, that primary medium was typography. The purpose of type is to record, exchange ideas, and ultimately to persuade others of the accuracy or merit of those ideas. Typography then, amplifies all of the characteristics of mature, meaningful discourse: “a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response” (Postman, 63).
But now typography has been superseded by a new medium: the television. The purpose of television whose content is guided by profit goals is not to appeal to your reason, or to force you to think about abstract ideas. The purpose of television is to entertain. Consequently, its content is fragmented, decontextualized, full of catchy music and flashy images, so that its audience is never perplexed, never made to think, and always amused. In other words, a debate even slightly resembling that between Douglas and Lincoln could never occur in today’s society; TV would forbid it, in part, because we wouldn’t watch it.
And therein lies a significant problem if we are to have a strong, flourishing democracy. If the primary purpose of our media is to entertain, then thoughtful public discourse is unlikely to occur.
In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert Hirschman argues that a long run condition for stability and legitimacy of a democratic regime is thoughtful public discussions. “Thoughtful” here implies a process of opinion forming, by both candidates and audience, based on the influx of new information presented by the orators within the context of the debate. More specifically, “… a democratic regime receives legitimacy to the extent that its decisions result from full and open deliberation among its principle groups, bodies, and representatives. Deliberation is here conceived as an opinion-forming process: the participants should not have fully or definitively formed opinions at the outset; they are expected to engage in meaningful discussion, which means that they should be ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of arguments of other participants and also as a result of new information which becomes available in the course of the debate.”
When our political debates are tailored to appeal to a television audience trained to believe that pleasure is the stuff of life, there is little room for thoughtful deliberation among the crowd. We cannot tolerate answers that run more than a minute, or at most 2. “Secretary Clinton, you may have a minute and a half to explain why inconsistencies in missives that you wrote in the midst of (1) a firefight and (2) conflicting information inputs should not be used as a measure of your character.” Senator Sanders, you will have 30 seconds to respond.
Terribly sad, don’t you think?