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)

No comments:

Post a Comment