(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I think, based on the current cultural climate, it is quite relevant and I hope that you will come to the same conclusion.)
Each form of communication faces natural constraints to the types of content it is able to articulate. Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death uses this idea as part of the framework for his entire argument. Postman believes that the television has a place as a form of entertainment, but when it moves beyond amusement, it is ineffective. Talking about biases of form, Postman argues that “ventriloquism, dancing, and mime do not play well on radio, just as sustained, complex talk does not play well on television” (Postman 92).
As the means of discourse in our culture have evolved, each new technology exhibits biases of previous technologies. After all, no technology is created in a vacuum, but rather, new technology exists as an evolution of previous discoveries. Expanding on this idea of how technology evolves, Postman states, “each of the media that entered the electronic conversation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries followed the lead of the telegraph and the photograph, and amplified their biases” (Postman 77). Whether this amplification occurs based on the inherent nature of the new technology or the epistemological mindset of new users, it is clear that our current media environment is strongly grounded in the background created by the telegraph and photograph.
Although our current digital media atmosphere is more nuanced and complex than the environment of 1985, the Internet and our other forms of digital media still exhibit many of the same constraints as the television. Many of these constraints were introduced by the telegraph, which “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse” (Postman 65). The telegraph focused primarily on bridging distance and increasing the speed and accessibility of information. But in doing so it “made relevance irrelevant” (Postman 67), by providing consumers with more information than they needed or could possibly use. These types of conversations lacked context and “made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning” (Postman 65). Information in our current digital age is very similar to information communicated by the telegraph. We so value accessibility and speed of communication that we send and receive information with almost no context. Think about how easily and frequently we send texts or tweets without enough background information and have to go back and explain ourselves. Even the limitations imposed on our character usage by these mediums show that we care more about communicating quickly and briefly than thoroughly and thoughtfully. This prioritization of quick communication hurts serious discourse by trading speed for context. Inability for serious discourse is perpetuated by our heightened accessibility to information via the Internet, which allows us to know anything that we want, regardless of its importance and relevance. We may know a lot about trivial things from YouTube or Tumblr but these pieces of knowledge probably will not help us carry on serious conversations.
The visual basis created by the photograph also contributes to constrain current digital media. Postman states, “the photograph presents the world as object; language, the world as idea” (Postman 72). Because of the photograph’s seeming objectivity, it leaves no room for imagination and hinders discussion. After all a photograph “offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (Postman 73). Although language must occur in sequence and in context to make sense, “there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one” (Postman 73). Every medium with a screen has a leaning towards communication via pictures. Although we incorporate words into our digital media use, pictures are the foremost purpose and tool of the digital medium. And pictures, which are often deceptive, can obstruct public discourse. Because pictures seem objective but only deal with particulars, we have a tendency to be fooled by images. When we see an Instagram post of a friend at a party or a picture on the news of a sinister looking person, we make all sorts of assumptions about these people and their lives. In reality these pictures are brief, possibly manipulated slices of reality, which cannot communicate the vast extent of truth that they promise to share.
Because of the evolution of technology, we live in a visually based world of media where accessibility and speed of communication have trumped context and relevance, and have impeded serious, logical discussion.
For further reading, check out Postman’s book.
If this post piqued your interest or seems way out of line, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. As always, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading!