Allow me to introduce Mr. Neil Postman’s oeuvre: “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. A book about the effects of media upon culture and the discourse of truth. But wait a minute, I wouldn’t like to chew your food for thought. Let us quickly survey what this book is about and why, in my personal opinion, it is critical to begin a conversation as analysts, consumers, and individuals. If you have read this book before, you may like to skip my brief introduction. If you haven’t, let me ask you some questions. Do you feel or believe that the impact of media can have a fundamental effect on society? Would you say that while you read this post there are other devices or platforms providing a subjectively infinite amount of information? Or at least, have you noticed how the ‘fake news’ phenomena were driven by new media? Well, about 30 years ago Mr. Postman was freaking out about media and it’s effect on society. Decades later his words seem like a myth, a return to an archetypal story where we define our societies and ourselves based on the channels of communication. Let’s take a brief look at what he said.
Media as Epistemology.
Before talking about the disruptions generated by T.V. lets briefly go through what “media as epistemology” means. Basically, he is talking about how media not only defines the best and proper way to convey information or communicate, it also implicitly symbolizes the format of truth or information’s authority. In Ancient Greece, truth would be displayed in long conversations under the dialectic method. Thus, although the written word was already established, other intellectuals would spend hours in conversation (something that is evident in Plato’s books using dialogues in his writing). With more convenient media (like printing or radio) the connotation of truth also shifted. Printed documents like contracts are still the standard for agreements and duties in our society. Journalism has adopted new media in any way convenient; from print, to radio, to T.V., and now digital media. Nevertheless, after our crisis with fake news we find truth to be media-less (a very interesting phenomenon by itself). During Postman’s time, T.V. was the supreme ruler of mainstream communication and central node of popular culture. Many disciplines (specifically those who were incompatible with entertainment) would stay away from this new format of truth; such as academics or few journalists. But for many, the white screen swiftly and delightfully became the central node of entertainment and truth. Up to the point where the phrase “if it appears in T.V., it must be true” would be a common saying (either ironically or not).
You may be thinking now “wait a second, entertainment and truth in the same plate?”. The sketchy combination of mass consumer appeal and provision of information is one of Mr. Postman’s focus of attention. The use of T.V. to convey information regarding aspects of politics, religion, or education would be biased by the format and habits of their audience. Thus, the contents would fail to be provided as they are intended when multiple incentives and industry standards distort the way they are presented.
Machines and Platform: Information Over-saturation.
One of the main aspects that fundamentally changes how new media affects us is information technology. It could be stated that IT is in its broad meaning the core technology of media. As it evolves, so does the way we communicate and influence each other. The situation described by Postman regarding the role and impact of TV takes us to a time where, although contents where centralized and biased by the emitter, the editorial decisions came from. The massive bottom-up self-organization of a community such as YouTube allows collective intelligence to find the best match-making between audience and content creators. Someone could hope that this organic social mechanism would be enough and ideal for the consolidation of ‘valuable’ content. In part, that’s the way we operate or how we used to operate. Recommendation systems or search engine technologies allow platforms to have better match-making processes. Meaning you would most likely get what you (fingers crossed) are looking for (even if you didn’t know it beforehand). The sheer amount of information available today is abysmal, and we will keep creating more and more. We have passed by far the limit in which is humanly possible to consume and evaluate big data, and thus we rely on machines. Machine learning, deep learning, or other artificial intelligence approaches help us out in finding patterns of preferences and behaviors (making it a great tool to relate audiences with content creators). As Reddit organically works out internet memes, this automated match-making process turns into the foundation of new innovations diffusion. An efficient algorithm in Spotify or YouTube would not only provide a great service for consumers and creators, but it would also indirectly choose which cultural traits and contents will be promoted.
The connection between Orwell and Huxley: The Decentralized Big Brother.
Postman makes reference to Huxley’s “A Brave New World”. He remarks that (in the 80’s) people were obsessed with the idea of Big Brother controlling society, its norms, and its behavior. This doesn’t come as a surprise given the threats of dictators around the world and the latent menace during the cold war. The Orwellian nightmare would require a central government who dictates norms and distorts culture. On the other hand, Huxley’s version of cultural oblivion is based on our personal choice of minding inconsequential activities and contents that detract us from nourishing our society. 30 years later the trend seems to be the same, by personal choice we consume hours of social media and popular culture is defined by simple and generic symbols of mass market audiences. But there is something different. Content in the T.V. industry was relatively centralized among the top three companies (i.e. ABC, CBS, NBC), nowadays it spread over many platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, etc. We have many communities in those different platforms, and also several overlaps between them. All of this prevents an unfair competition or unhealthy centralization. Nevertheless, match-making systems and their designers present a threat in cultural and even economic organization. A platform has incentives to have as many consumers and companies involved as possible, while they maintain a sustainable ratio of participation. As it was with the “entertainment” factor of T.V. media, platform content is biased by this “participation” metric and match-making processes may be biased towards the interest of specific parties. An example of would be YouTube’s interest in highly relatable, massively consumed, advertisement friendly content. The more audience this content gets, the more companies they can get on board. It is similar to T.V., as they have to consider advertisement and other types of sponsorship but they work under the premise of ‘freedom to create content’ while access is invisibly restricted by the machine. And don’t forget it is not only the diffusion of this content that gets promoted, but it also biases the audiences for other small producers that lose their business and community traction.
A similar warning, different threat.
Professionally and personally, I feel compelled by these topics. I do believe this connects most of my interests: media/entertainment, platform organization, diffusion of culture/innovations, collective behavior, social complexity, among others. Having in consideration the speed of technology innovation, the importance of understanding its disruption in cultural and economic systems is undeniable. New technologies are offering possibilities that we may easily misuse. Digital frameworks allow for decentralized, heterarchical, and diverse communities interacting. Letting our sub-cultures and popular culture be shifted by an invisible or evident big brother would be a disgrace. Well, this post ended up being way shorter than I expected. There is so much to read, research, and talk about our new media and it’s effect on markets and culture. I’m not an expert in media or communications, but I feel a proper analysis regarding content platforms and information use is critical to understand how culture will evolve in our society. I was surprised with Mr. Neil Postman emphatic critic on T.V., as it was right on target from the perspective of a social media citizen. If you have any chance, please give this book a read. Even a random chapter would give you a swift and clear idea of Postman’s critic. I’ll just end up with a note from one of the best critics of 80’s and 90’s media and culture, whose comment on Postman’s caution about consuming ‘entertainment media’ goes as follows:
All I can say about Neil Postman’s brilliant Amusing Ourselves to Death is:
Guilty As Charged.
~ Matt Groening