Saturday, November 5, 2016

Amusing Ourselves to Death

In the mid-1980s a sociologist by the name of Neil Postman wrote a book that was destined to become a classic in cultural criticism. The book was titled Amusing Ourselves to Death and it was Postman's thesis that television dumbed down everything and that our politics would eventually be transmogrified by the medium from a serious exercise in selecting the people who would guide our national destiny into little more than a frivolous spectacle.

Journalist Paul Brian has a column at The Federalist which amplifies Postman's prescient prognostication and in which he argues that television is corrupting not just our politics but our very ability to think:
Postman saw today’s click-craving, faux-outrage 24/7 news cycle slouching over the field of satellite dishes to be born from decades away. Even though the Internet Age was not yet upon him, he saw where the path of everything-as-entertainment was leading: to people having shorter average attention spans than goldfish, to a continuous present where contradictions and context are just minor details of no great interest.

“With television we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present,” Postman writes. “In a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit.”

In foreseeing the climate that would pave the way for pure-celebrity candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Donald Trump, not to mention the elevation of politicians like President Barack Obama to celebrity status, Postman surely deserves his reputation as the Nostradamus of the digital age.
The game show sets upon which our candidates stage their debates, the sporting event atmosphere that the media creates, the melodramatic "countdowns" to the debates and elections, the fascination with sexual scandal, the focus on whether some trivial development will help or hurt a candidate rather than on whether it's really even relevant to the issues that should concern us, all conspire to stifle thought. Campaigns are no longer vehicles for helping voters understand issues and discern truth so much as extravaganzas exploited by the media to attract viewers who wish merely to be entertained.

Serious discussion of issues requires thinking and the strenuous exercise of reason, but that's not a promising way to garner ratings among the unthinking masses of television viewers. Better to package campaigns and candidates in a political version of Survivor:
We now live in a political climate where politicians embrace fame. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes national news for being photographed shirtless. Trump hires a media provocateur as his campaign CEO, prompting speculation his plan is to form a media empire if his presidential run doesn’t pan out. Hillary Clinton’s supporters fret that her appearance on Kimmel received lower ratings than reuns of Teen Moms and Friends (but she’s trying to increase star power by hanging out with Justin Timberlake).

Amusing Ourselves to Death essentially champions Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World over George Orwell’s vision in 1984.

“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 capacity to think,” Postman writes.

To extend the Big Brother metaphor: Is he so funny / annoying / brilliant / stupid / crazy / ridiculous that you can’t look away? Good news: because of the high ratings he’ll be back with all-new episodes next season.

“In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours,” Postman prophesies with dark humor. Orwell saw a future where books were banned, Huxley one in which there was no need to ban books because nobody wanted to read them in the first place.
The media beguiles us into focusing on which candidate has made the most serious gaffe or committed the greatest outrage against social orthodoxy or articulated the cleverest put-down. We receive constant reminders as to who looks old, who looks tired, who looks frumpy. What the candidate would actually do if elected is barely given a thought by a media determined to seduce us with breathless reports of a candidate's eloquence, style, charm, and afflatus, but rarely analyzing in any serious way the quality of a candidate's ideas. They seem determined to amuse us to death.
Postman endeavors to prove that in the Age of Typography (elsewhere he calls it the Age of Exposition), when books and print newspapers were the sole source of information, discourse was “generally coherent, serious and rational.” But in the Age of Television (elsewhere he calls it the Age of Show Business), political discourse in particular has become “shriveled and absurd,” reliant on context-free snippets of information and entertaining spectacles and gaffes.
And it's not just our politics which suffers from this infatuation with the trivial and mindless. Sporting events are turned into multimedia assaults on the senses and intellect with halftime rock bands and fireworks and meaningless side-line interviews involving vacuous questions posed by witless "reporters." Too many church services feature epilepsy-inducing strobe lights, artificial stage fog, deafness-inducing high decibel "worship" music, and flamboyant preachers whose message, even if it's occasionally worth hearing, is often obscured by the medium in which it's presented.

One example of mind-dulling news reportage, albeit one of minor importance, is the radio news report that features a snippet of often unintelligible background noise from some foreign trouble site. Sometimes it's screaming sirens, or machinery noise, or people yelling in a foreign tongue. Listeners aren't supposed to ask what the actual purpose of playing that particular sound bite could possibly be, they're just supposed to allow it to anesthetize them into an acquiescence to the pointlessness of it.

Postman and Brian, I think, are right. We are not a people who want to think. We're a people who want to be able to avoid thinking, especially about politics. We really want only to be distracted and entertained. Brian quotes Postman:
“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice,” he writes. “The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”
There's more good stuff from Brian's article at the link.

Where Does Altruism Come From?

An article in Science Daily on altruistic behavior in plants, of all things, quotes a Harvard evolutionary biology professor named William Friedman:
"One of the most fundamental laws of nature is that if you are going to be an altruist, give it up to your closest relatives," said Friedman. "Altruism only evolves if the benefactor is a close relative of the beneficiary."
Either Friedman doesn't consider humans the product of evolution, which would be an odd stance for an evolutionary biologist to take, or he's never heard of Mother Teresa.