Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fahrenheit Four Fifty None (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death analyzes the effect of television on public discourse in comparison to discourse during the age of print. Though his writing constitutes complex, varied syntax, along with an advanced vocabulary, indicating an audience of either those who read regularly or researchers, the text is directed to any adult with a basic understanding of the underlying concepts of rhetoric (such as those taught in high school English courses); his goal is to make them aware of the dwindling quality and pertinence of communication between a media and its audience, and he suggests the reader be selective in their television consumption. Postman finds, “If politics [or any other topic that is serious in its pure form] is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are,” and wishes to cure the reader of “tak[ing] ignorance to be knowledge” (pg. 108) as much of what is broadcast is purportless material under a veil of pertinence, presented as entertainment, which distorts the messages the media should be conveying.

After postulating that “We are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death” (pg. 4), Postman’s first concrete fact, “As I write, the President of the United States is a former Hollywood movie actor,” sets the topic for the entire rest of the book: America has become obsessed with entertainment to the point that it interferes in areas of life that previously did without, and had their own appropriate sets of principles before, such as politics or education. The phrase is a stunning juxtaposition for the reader, as it combines the most disciplined and intellectual of identities with one that is glamorous and not to be taken seriously; similar to how the president’s two roles, though conflicting, coexist, entertainment has crept into topics once seen as sacred against embellishment, such as news broadcasting.

Early on, in the first chapter of the book, Postman explains how the “news of the day” could not exist in a time when information could not travel at the speed of light. In this short preview of the “news” discussion to come, he remains neutral aside from the description of the news as “decontextualized,” implying that part (if not all) of the meaning is lost in “news of the day” items -- however, Postman’s criticism of the “news of the day” is revealed about 60 pages later in the fifth chapter, where, quoting Henry David Thoreau, he argues the telegraph will bring news “that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Postman argues that though the news of the day is said to bring people closer together, it mostly delivers irrelevant information about crises occurring far from the audience’s residences or otherwise not concerning them (pgs. 8, 67). (text to itself)

In Abraham Lincoln’s time, “The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or scholar….Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind, that almost every man is a reader” (pg. 34). Though books are no longer the primary source of knowledge in America, many people still aim to create for themselves an understanding of the world (or, at least, specific topics such as philosophy or technology) on par with college graduates and CEOs; today, the hunger is fed by the internet. An array of colleges and universities offer information on various topics online, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare system, which provides entire course materials (such as notes, assignments, and a syllabus) for 2,150 courses, all free of charge, online. In addition to newer material, classics such as Plato’s texts can be found in multiple areas online, such as MIT’s Internet Classics Archive, or on Elpenor’s Home of the Greek Word. (text to world)

Some texts, however, do not translate well into newer media. Postman refers to Karl Marx’s argument: “‘Is the Iliad possible,’ he asks rhetorically, ‘when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear’” (pg. 42-43). It is true that epic poetry, and most ancient and medieval works, were written to be read aloud and performed; the delivery of the words was just as important as their meanings. When these pieces created in the oral age are read silently from a page, they lack the performance aspect with which they were originally intended; this allows phrases to be interpreted incorrectly, or for a statement to have a much smaller impact than intended. Shakespeare’s works often suffer the same fate as the Iliad (recited in video); as a script, Romeo and Juliet fails to describe the characters' emotions or body language well, and the reader must discern from the script (if they can) when a characters is being sincere or sarcastic, if they are exasperated or energized by a thrill. The transition of prose from oral to typography made many classics partially ambiguous to today’s readers. (text to text)

To tackle the challenge of interpreting text, Postman says, “The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because he comes to the text alone” (pg. 50) ;it reminds me of Stephen King’s words in his book On Writing: “Come to [the act of writing] any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page” (King, 2000, pg. 106) Reading and writing are complementary activities, with the study of one usually supporting the understanding of the other; it is only appropriate that both require a person to be prepared to dig deep into their vast bin of knowledge for what they need to proceed. (text to text)

Postman claims, “Telegraphy also made public discourse essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention” (pg. 69). Broken time and attention has grown exponentially with the increased use of the internet and mobile devices; I will watch last week’s episode of a favorite show as soon as I finish this post; how is it still last week’s if I am watching it now? And no doubt I will have a tab open with some other diversion for when the video lags, instead of contemplating what I just watched. When the media we receive is choppy, we expect that we will receive to also be choppy, and when we are taken outside of our comfort zones, such as I once I read the prompt and wrote my first timed write of the year after two months of nothing but diversions, we will create a multitasking experience that suits our needs, such as when I read an ancient blog post while we blast our favorite music in Pandora. (text to self)

A repeated idea in the book is that newer media diminishes the discussion aspect present in text; he introduces this idea with the statement that photos leave no room for argument, as they provide proof of precise moments that have occurred:
“Language, of course, is the medium we use to challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what comes into view, what is on the surface. The words ‘true’ and ‘false’ come from the universe of language, and no other. When applied to a photograph, the question, Is it true? means only, i this a reproduction of a real slice of space-time? If the answer if ‘Yes,’ there are no grounds for argument, for it makes no sense to disagree with an unfaked photograph. The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable.” (pg. 73) 
The inability to perform intellectual debate is expanded to include any media that does not follow a cause and effect or chronological order, such as the sporadic nature of news broadcasts, changing from politics to interest stories to the weather in under a second, because “In a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist” (pg. 110). As none of the stories are related to one another, no conflict can be found between them, thus each exists as its own indisputable (and as stated earlier, often irrelevant) item. The trend continues with commercials, where “No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it” (pg. 128). Because so many commercials today depend on storytelling to sell their product, they tend to stick to emotional appeals and generalities; with no facts to scrutinize, no one can invalidate the advertisement. (text to itself)

“What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer” (pg. 128); this statement of Postman’s did not surprise me, as I have encountered versions of it multiple times in my business courses, but it still pleased me. Today’s consumers expect their shopping experience and products to be tailored to their wishes. No matter how well made a product is, it will not sell if no one wants it; this is why market research has become one of the most important functions of a business; if the business knows what the people want and need, they can design the product to meet those needs, thus creating a returning customer base. Though I despise the company, I must cite that Apple’s iPad Mini was designed to appease those who believed the original iPad was too large for practical use; the gadget was Walmart’s top selling tablet for Black Friday this year. The concept of fitting the product to the customer can also apply to services; as Postman says, “On television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience” (pg. 134). A politician must be sensitive to the wants and needs of those he governs, and reflect this sensitivity to obtain trust in the public. (text-to-self, text-to-world, text to itself) 

I was born over ten years after “The Voyage of the Mimi” (pg. 149) set sail, but I can attest that PBS became fond of using websites and games to expand whatever topics would be covered on their educational programs. While I was in elementary school, my favorite of their programs was Cyberchase: an animated series following three children and an alien-bird as they traveled across Cyberspace, using basic math, such as multiplication and division or unit conversions, to overcome any obstacles they faced. While I cannot recall how much the show taught me, I do remember playing a specific online game themed around the show, which required one to pour equal amounts of water into differently shaped glasses, or something to that effect. I must argue against Postman here, as while the game was, as he would detest, entertaining, there were no hints or “I give up” buttons to be found, thus, I was required to use my knowledge to solve each problem. To this day, PBS still has a website (including) for most of its programming, and not just for the children’s entertainment. (text to self) 

The TV turnoff to get people to turn off TVs for a month; Nickelodeon Day of Play is the same, but for only a day; they used to not broadcast for most of the day, but now it doesn’t make any sense because they broadcast shows the entire day. text to world Similar to the “TV Turnoff” that Postman references, which, sponsored by the Farmington, Connecticut, Library Council, made efforts to have people turn off their televisions for a month (pg. 158), each year, the Nickelodeon channels sponsor the Worldwide Day of Play: an initiative to have kids go outside and be active instead of watching television. Between the hours of 12pm and 3pm, instead of their usual programming, the channels (and websites) will host messages encouraging kids to play outside. But just as the TV Turnoff was inverted by requiring television to advertise its cause, the Worldwide Day of Play does that, and only a handful of channels participate; with so many other options available, many kids could simply change the channel. (text to world) 

According to Postman, “What afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking” (pg. 163). With this description, one would think Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 were interchangeable. Though, it is fascinating that Postman does not mention Bradbury’s novel once in his analysis, as the story focuses on a man that comes to prefer books and thinking to the thoughtless laughter of those around him (literally, people spend all day in front of their televisions, acting as if they are part of the action and laughing at the figments of a virtual reality). How Postman could overlook this read, I can not fathom, but if his book were in response to one already existing, that one would be Fahrenheit 451. (text to text)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The World is Flat

“Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down in history as the man who first made this discovery. I returned home and shared my discovery only with my wife, and only in a whisper.
‘Honey,’ I confided, ‘I think the world is flat.’” -- p.16

Through his report and analysis of trends in the global economy, business relations, and the new ways people communicate, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat reveals the events and gadgets that allowed the world to become “flat”—to become connected beyond political and social borders—and explains the consequences of the “leveling of the playing field” for communities, businesses, and individuals across the globe.

The most obvious impact on business is the rise of outsourcing. Friedman’s first flattening experience is with Jaithirth Rao, the head of an Indian accounting firm called MphasiS. MphasiS works for American accounting firms by doing the tax returns of clients’ files sent to them by American accountants, leaving the Americans more time to work more personally with their clients. The outsourcing is not limited to accounting; another Indian company, Infosys, serves as a call center for American companies, providing customer assistance. The World is Flat was written in 2005, but still, in 2013, the trend of outsourcing has no end in sight: a recent article from the online Indian business news source Siliconindia ( states that “India’s biggest outsourcing companies like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL, as well as midsized companies like MindTree, Polaris, and Hexaware, are likely to get benefits from banks which are looking for cost effective banking technology.”  That I, a sixteen-year-old American girl, have access to a news source written for Indian professionals (and the site was originally a print magazine distributed in New York, at that) reflects the flattening of the world, sharing of information, and leveling of the field (me, with the same resources as business professionals!) that Friedman has discovered(Text-to-World, Text-to-Self).

Friedman acknowledges what was, at the time of his writing, a series of tools only widely used by business professionals and software developers: Web-based business tools. These early online services, such as, gave managers the tools to do finances, track requests, organize and manage customer information, and store files, so they could access their information and tools from anywhere with an internet connection. Any employee on any type of computer could use these programs and trust they could share information with their coworkers. The current leader in all online resources, Google, has fulfilled this need with Google Apps, their “cloud-based productivity suite that helps you and your team connect and get work done from anywhere on any device. It's simple to setup, use and manage, allowing you to work smarter and focus on what really matters (”. The demand is real, as their webpage proudly asks visitors to “Join the 5 million businesses using Google Apps,”  Every day, I use Google Apps For Education (a version of the suite that provides tools more useful to students) to collaborate with classmates on reports, keep track of memberships, and monitor progress.  With Google Apps, I can work as efficiently as the business professionals that contributed to Google’s five million (Text-to-World, Text-to-Self).

Though a flat world has many benefits, it can also cause problems, such as a sudden change in standards. In America, math and science education are not as challenging in the primary and secondary grades as in other countries, while they are not popular among Americans as a higher-education choice of study. As Eric Stern, a young man whom was studying biomedical engineering at Yale at the time, says, “People want to do stuff that is fun....[But] it’s not until you get to the senior level of advanced classes that you can start to have fun. But you need to have acquired all these fundamentals beforehand …and getting those fundamentals is not fun…The culture now is geared toward having fun” (pg. 324). The American habit of putting pleasure and happiness above discipline and practicality was also addressed in Jean M. Twenge’s Generation Me: “We want to make lots of money at a career that is fulfilling and makes us famous” (Twenge 2006, pg. 82). Twenge also comments that “when Asian students find out that they scored low on a particular task, they want to keep working on that task so they can improve their performance. American students, in contrast, prefer to give up on that task and work on another one” (p. 62). The American avoidance of work and pursuit of easy, fun tasks is the reason we have fallen behind in education. A Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study revealed that while “44 percent of eight-graders in Singapore scored at the most advanced level in math,… Only seven percent in the United States did” (p.323) (Text-to-text).

While describing the “globalization of the local” Friedman expresses a fear that has been held by the foreign TV moms (and dads) on American television for years: Americanization. “In the constant struggle between the homogenizing and particularizing forces of globalization, it seemed like the homogenizing-Americanizing forces were destined to triumph. Globalization would have an American face, an American look, and an American taste” (p.433). Because America is the front-runner when it comes to globalization, people fear that American trends will devour the traditions of other cultures. While the American influence is high, such as the Indian call-center workers from the beginning of the book adopting an American accent and name, what people are forgetting is that not everyone is becoming American, simply embracing America, just as the call-center workers are still in India, and “still eat curry…still wear saris, and… still live in tightly bound extended family units” (p.386). A podcast by Jean Henry of WSUF News addresses the concept of “Keeping Your Culture Stirring in the American Melting Pot.” He explains his experience from interviewing people at the Hillsborough County Public Schools Adult Education Department who were taking an English language class ( (Text-to-Itself, Text-to-Text).

Friedman summons a paradox when he tells the tale of a taxi ride in France: “throughout the ride, [The driver and I] had been doing six different things. He was driving, talking on his phone, and watching a movie. I was riding, working on my laptop, and listening to my iPod. There was only one thing we never did: talk to each other ” (pg. 469). Despite the connectivity brought by the flattening of the world, best represented by Indian call-centers providing text support for American clients, people are growing further and further apart. The higher amount of productivity made possible by technology leaves little time for chance occurrences and relationship building small-talk. Each of Friedman’s discoveries was attributed to planned meetings and tours. Despite the fun-loving nature of American youth, the world as a whole, including them, is becoming more business-like in function (Text-to-Itself).

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Jean M. Twenge’s Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before describes the nature of Generations X and Y and reveals the causes and effects of their contrasting views with Baby Boomers. Generation Me’s conflicting views of entitlement and hopelessness have changed America’s identity, and the trends are expected to continue.

Generation Me’s apparent inconsideration stems from pride cultivated from not only the home and in school, but from the media as well. As Luke Epplin states in his The Atlantic article “You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?”, “These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome….the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather--or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears--and believe that their greatness comes from within.” Children have been taught that there are no limits to their greatness, and willpower alone is enough for them to reach their goals, and that their goals should have priority over those of the community. Epplin states that “Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good,” just as Twenge cites the extreme example of the Columbine school shooting; in a video made before the shooting, Eric Harris, one of the gunmen, states “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” Generation Me’s extreme focus on the self has destroyed the sense of community established by Baby Boomers (text to text, text to world).

Self-focus is a consequence of the self-esteem taught to members of Generation Me by their parents and teachers. A popular poster seen in classrooms features a kitten viewing its reflection in a mirror, though its reflection is of an adult lion. The image is accompanied by the phrase, “What matters most is how you see yourself.” Though the image is intended to increase confidence in students, the message is destructive; when the most important thing is your opinion of yourself, what bearing should grades, social relationships, or criticism from others have? When an adolescent believes their view of themselves is perfect, they are not motivated to attempt intellectual, social, or professional growth. As long as there is a lion in the mirror, members of Generation Me disregard that everyone else sees their true form: just a kitten (text to text).

Today's adolescents are more direct than Baby Boomers. Twenge states, "managers say that young employees ask for instant feedback that's straightforward and uncomplicated, and give it in return." My bluntness and preference for directness are pet peeves of my mother. Too often, we will have an argument that began with "I want to come home to a calm, inviting environment," and ends with "why didn't you just say you wanted the kitchen cleaned?" Every day my grandmother picks me up from schook, she asks how my day went. Whenever I answer "fine" or "okay," she responds with "oh, so you had a good day!" Though I am honest in having no warm feelings towards six hours of brain exercise, older generations believe it is best to say whatever will upset others the least (text to self).