Being Human in the Digital Age: The Relationship Between Technology and Society

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Specifically, it interacts with “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. These are relevant issues in our current society and I hope that you will find this post to be interesting and informative.)

The invention of the wheel changed the way cultures operated. Rather than manually moving every single item that needed to be transported, individuals were able to save time and energy by moving things via carts and other wheeled vehicles. This demonstrates the effect that technology has on the way societies function. As new technologies come to life, societies adjust and adapt to the benefits of those technologies.

To disregard the effect of technology on society is inexcusable. Postman argues that “technology comes equipped with a program for social change” and as various media become further integrated into our culture, the effect grows stronger (Postman 157). Technology has the power to, not only, change the way we act but also adjust how we think. And it has become apparent that “technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation” (Postman 157). The printing press had a massive effect on society by introducing a new form of communication, as well as a new way to think about logic and argumentation. As books became more popular, thinking often became more logical and structured. Throughout its existence, the television has redefined entertainment to the point that we often find little fulfillment in the entertainment modes of the past. Where plays used to be a primary source of entertainment, now people tend to find them boring or lacking in appeal. The Internet is redefining information and what it means to be informed in a way that we would wither in a society that communicated slowly via telegram. We must be aware that technologies “are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implications to enforce their special definitions of reality” (Postman 10). A major part of this awareness revolves around trying not to “make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture” (Postman 157).

To be human in the digital age, means to question technology and change. Humans have been given an amazing ability to think and communicate about these issues that other creatures lack. Therefore, we should be willing to thoughtfully deliberate on these ideas. We need to throw away our belief in “the inevitability of progress” and discard the idea that “history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement” (Postman 158). To just accept technology and assume forward progress is to abandon our responsibility. Postman encourages us that “no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are” (Postman 161). If we are willing and proactive in thinking about and understanding our technology, then we can be prepared to control it, rather than let it control us. In our culture it can be tempting to put technology and its benefits on such a high pedestal that we ignore the other blessings in life. We, as humans, are responsible to consider technology and also to position in the proper place in our priorities. Technology is a formidable and exciting tool and has the power to destroy society when used poorly and improve society when used well. It is our job to discern the difference between these two alternatives.

 

For further reading, check out Postman’s book.

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The History of Advertising in America

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I hope you will find it interesting and thought provoking.)

A study of the field of advertising can be quite revealing since advertisements attempt to sell products to consumers and consequently require an understanding of consumers to do so. Therefore, the nature of advertisements in a culture speaks to the nature of the people in that culture. The history of advertising in America is quite eye opening and can be seen as “a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment” (Postman 58).

Advertisements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had a fundamental difference from current ads. These older advertisements “assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical” (Postman 58). They correctly presupposed that buyers, in this time period, were concerned primarily with knowing the merits and potential defects of the product. Since these buyers were serious and analytical, advertisements, in this age, were crafted in a way to appeal to this brand of buyers. These older advertisements were written in “single-column space” (Postman 58) and had the primary purpose of “convey[ing] information and [making] claims in propositional form” (Postman 59). This typographical form of advertising had merit because it employed language as its foundation. Although “words cannot guarantee their truth content,” they do, however, “assemble a context in which the question, Is this true or false? is relevant” (Postman 60). In the 1890’s the foundation of advertising began to progress as slogans, jingles, and photographs began to appear in advertisements. Appealing to the desires of consumers, these advertisements became primarily focused on displaying an entertaining and pleasant experience. So, Postman explains, “by the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their potential customers” (Postman 60).

This evolution of the basis of advertisements continued and escalated as the television became more prominent. Television commercials for products and politicians have become a normal part of life in America. These commercials do not assume rationality on the part of consumers, and do not try to make truths claims. Substituting “images for claims,” these commercials are basically dramas that appeal to the emotions and desires of consumers (Postman 128). Since no assertions are made, “one can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it” (Postman 128). It seems like commercials try to avoid concentrating too much on their products. Many commercials may be ambivalent towards the product or brand being used until the very end of the production. Because, after all, commercials are not about the product being displayed but, rather, they are about the “character of the consumers of [their] products” (Postman 128). Instead of focusing on the greatness of their products, commercials focus on the greatness of the experience of individuals who have bought into these products. Postman states that commercials “provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling images of themselves” (Postman 135). They say that if we buy a certain car, we will possess irresistible appeal to the other sex, rather than focusing on the attributes of the actual vehicle. They tell us that if we buy a certain brand of beer, we will have incredible parties all football season long, rather than concentrating too much on the actual flavor or merits of the drink. Having little basis in rationality, commercials must be brief. The commercial “disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument” (Postman 131). Therefore, they cater to the short attention spans and instant gratification mindsets of current consumers by providing immediate solutions to all our problems.

Online advertisements and commercials possess many similarities to television commercials. Employing the same brevity and emotional appeals, these forms of advertising may often be the exact same ones that we find on TV. However, online advertisements suffer from not being able to command our attention in the same way that television commercials do. Commercials can often be annoying so we, as media users, often count the cost of sitting through a certain amount of advertising. And while we often deem this process worthwhile for the sake of whatever television program we are engaged in, I believe online users have a smaller tolerance for commercials than television viewers do. Therefore, online advertisements have to go to extra efforts to remain relevant. One way that they accomplish this task is through using algorithms to determine what types of products consumers are interested in. Many of the ads that you see on Facebook and other Internet sites are assembled using research of your past Internet searches. In order to stay significant, these advertisements have to focus on the desires of the individual online user.

Advertisements are about selling a product, appealing to buyers, and ultimately making a profit. Older forms of advertising accommodated analytical consumers, television commercials cater to entertainment-seeking buyers, and online advertisements appeal to individual wants. So no matter the make up of the consumer base, you can be sure that marketing experts will continue to research the specific factors that appeal to consumers and try to play off of those factors.

 

For further reading, check out Postman’s book.

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Public Radio and Public Goods

I listen to a decent amount of public radio on my various commutes to school and work. Inevitably, there comes a time every couple months where the station that I listen to tries to coerce its listeners into donating money to support the station. “Coerce” might be a strong word, but I do want to emphasize that these reporters really lay it on thick.

And they use a number of tactics. First, they try to emphasize that the dollar amount they’re asking for is really small. Who can’t part with a mere $5 a month? Second, they inform their listeners about some great deal where, if the listeners donate a certain amount, a charitably-minded company will match that amount. Of course this amazing opportunity only lasts for a short period of time, so listeners had better jump on it. Third, they share testimonials of individuals who have donated to the station and whose lives have consequently been changed for the better. Finally, and most interestingly, they appeal to the listener’s sense of morality. Is it really fair to be listening to the station without paying for it? Listeners who are basically stealing from the station in this way must feel so guilty. (Though, it should be noted that the station is offering their programming for free, so its hard to blame listeners for doing what the station is encouraging them to do. But more on this later.)

This entire process takes a good chunk of time. By the end of it I generally wonder why I didn’t just switch to a different station, but then I wouldn’t be able to write this post.

So what leads radio stations to behave in this way? Well, they are offering a good at no price and have to find some way to make money. The world is full of similar goods that consumers have the opportunity to benefit from without paying for directly. (Think of national defense, clean air, Thunder Over Louisville, etc.) In the world of Economics these are called “Public Goods” and have two distinctive characteristics: a) they are non-excludable, meaning it is difficult/impossible to prevent people from consuming them; b) they are non-rival, meaning that two individuals can consume the same good without limiting each other’s consumption.

Based on their characteristics, Public Goods suffer from a specific problem known as the “Free Rider” dilemma. If consumers know that a good will be available to them regardless of whether or not they pay for it, they will not be motivated to pay for it. The proper way to handle this issue would be to have each person pay what the good is worth to them. However, if you try to figure out how much said good is worth to them, they will likely understate its value.

There are a number of ways to handle this problem. From a government perspective, funding for Public Goods often comes from taxes. In the private arena businesses use advertisements, sponsorships, and other similar strategies to obtain funding.

Public radio is an interesting version of a public good, because they can use advertising to obtain funding but also often try (really hard) to get donations from their listeners. While these donations do provide the stations with money, they still fail to be completely efficient. Some people who pay a significant amount per month are still paying less than the station is worth to them, while others who were guilted into paying a small amount might be paying more than the station is worth to them.

I actually haven’t donated to this station and I probably will not, because it just is not that valuable to me. (Side note: I also disagree with many of this station’s positions, so I would have a hard time justifying supporting this station from that perspective. But that is really a separate issue.) Or to say that differently, to me the most valuable feature of public radio is the fact that it is free. If a price were imposed on my listening of a certain station, I would, without any remorse, merely switch to a different station or listen to music on my iPod. I admit that I am a “Free Rider” in this situation and I am okay with that.

If radio stations were really serious about obtaining funding from their listeners, they would try to restrict their product from being consumed freely. They could create some sort of subscription and only allow paid listeners to benefit from their programming. They haven’t done this yet, and I imagine that it is because there are significant amounts of listeners like me who would not continue to consume their products if they were no longer free. There are so many free substitutes available to consumers that, unless all radio stations imposed a price, the non-free stations would likely suffer significantly in this situation.

Public radio stations are in a unique and challenging situation. And until a workable solution comes forward, they will likely continue to try to obtain funding by begging their listeners for money. Maybe the true cost of listening to public radio is being tormented by twenty straight minutes of donation requests?

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I hope you found this post to be interesting and/or informative. If you agree or disagree with the view expressed in this post, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

The Evolution and Biases of Communication

(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.

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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!

Clichés, Stereotypes, and Sameness

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I hope it will be of relevance and interest to you.)

In “Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Adorno and Horkheimer base their discussion of the culture industry on the fact that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness” (Adorno and Horkheimer 94). The need to classify what we consume has all but disappeared since all the media before us occurs “cyclically” and “the details [have] become interchangeable” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Since all media put out by the culture industry is fundamentally the same, “the appearance of competition and choice” is deception (Adorno and Horkheimer 97). As consumers, even this pretense of choice and classification is meaningless since the culture industry has thoroughly classified everything for us (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). Whether sameness displays itself through patterns of form or through the transposable nature of the details, the products of the culture industry are fundamentally the same.

Clichés are an artifact of the culture industry that demonstrate this sameness. While clichés could probably be defined more broadly, I understand them to be interchangeable phrases that the majority of the public will understand and appreciate in a given situation because of their constant use. When Adorno and Horkheimer discuss clichés, they talk about them in the context of the film industry where these “ready-made clichés” can be “used here and there as desired and always [be] completely defined by the purpose they serve within the schema” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98). These phrases perpetuate sameness because they have been clearly defined through repetition, and, regardless of the situation, these clichés always mean the same thing. When someone uses the phrase “in the nick of time,” you do not stop and say, “That’s an odd phrase I wonder what it means?” Rather, although the specific vocabulary is peculiar and does not really make sense, you understand it’s meaning, regardless of the context, because you have heard it so many times.

Stereotypes also prolong sameness but in a more multifaceted manner than mere phrases. Although this definition is far from exhaustive, I understand a stereotype to be a common understanding of what something is like or how it should operate without being critically analyzed. Adorno and Horkheimer make a somewhat startling claim when they say, “the bread on which the culture industry feeds humanity, remains the stone of stereotype” (Adorno and Horkheimer 119). When understood within the context of their argument about the culture industry’s goal of sameness, this statement is enlightening. The culture industry bases the achievement of their goals on the cyclical nature and immutability of these stereotypes. Memes would definitely fit this category of stereotypes because the picture dictates the way that we understand the words without much need for analysis. When we notice memes of Dwight Schrute or the Most Interesting Man in the World, we can immediately predict the tone of the meme and then merely insert the specific words into that context to understand them. Beyond memes, we also see these patterns and repetitions through stereotypical characters in movies and stereotypical melodies in popular music, which can be understood and appreciated without an analytical or questioning mindset. Adorno and Horkheimer state that “in a film, the outcome can invariably be predicted at the start” and “in light music the prepared ear can always guess the continuation after the first bars of a hit song and is gratified when it actually occurs” (Adorno and Horkheimer 98-99). The culture industry is able to get away this repetition of form and detail because we not only tolerate it, but we welcome it.

The culture industry is able to continue injecting production with sameness because sameness sells. Pop music melodies and chord progressions are recycled because they have been proven to generate revenue. For the culture industry it is dangerous and unprofitable to break these patterns. Where greatness and innovation push boundaries and distrust style, the culture industry has promoted a “withering of imagination and spontaneity” through the closely monitored creation and promotion of patterns of sameness (Adorno and Horkheimer 100). Although we may hope for innovation and originality, we help prolong these cycles by buying into them. We may complain about the predictability of movie plots, but we still see the movies and support the industry. Maybe deep down we enjoy the stability and sense of control that we achieve through predicting the outcomes of songs and movies that, in essence, we’ve seen or heard many times before?

 

For further reading, check out Adorno and Horkheimer’s book.

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Hopefully you found this post to be interesting. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. Please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

 

Book Review: “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman

(Note: the following post is a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is one of my favorite books and has had an enormous amount of influence on me. Hence, you will likely see a handful of posts related to Postman’s book on here in the future. Hopefully, this post will entice you to read the book yourself; Postman expresses these ideas far better than I do.)

Neil Postman’s argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death is very systematic and intentional, starting with some basic premises about the television, moving to the history of communication in our culture, and ending with how the television affects different arenas of discourse. He clearly states his main arguments in the first chapter, which revolve around the idea that the changes from typography to television have “dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse” (Postman 8). Because of this shift and because of the natural constraints of television as a medium, “all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment” (Postman 3). As a culture we are robbing ourselves of the ability to talk seriously about social issues.

In the second chapter Postman articulates that the television is a tool for entertainment and that as we use this medium as a tool for discussing news, religion, politics, and education, we remove the necessary solemnity from these discussions. To be clear, Postman does not oppose the television as a whole. He advocates the television as a source for entertainment but argues that entertainment and somber discourse should be separated. We cannot say that all forms of communication are equal because “the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of the forms of expression” (Postman 22). The written word, Postman says, is more appropriate for cultural conversation than the television, because “the epistemology created by the television is not only inferior to print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist” (Postman 27). As he continues in this book, Postman articulates this idea further.

Postman explains America’s historical background of typographical communication in chapters three and four. He claims that, “America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of,” (Postman 41) which created a “serious and rational public conversation, from we have been so dramatically separated” (Postman 43). Much of Postman’s argument is based on the idea that “words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning” and they are serious by nature “because meaning demands to be understood” (Postman 50). As he continues, Postman clarifies this idea further, but he strongly believes that words provide us a unique ability to communicate in a way that pictures cannot match. This culture based on typography possessed public discourse “characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas” (Postman 51).

In chapter five Postman moves to show how the introduction of the telegraph and the photograph changed communication. The creation of the telegraph, he claims, “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse” (Postman 65). The telegraph changed communication by flooding the world of communication with “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence” through “context-free information” (Postman 65). By use of “sensational, fragmented, [and] impersonal” information, the telegraph displayed an ephemeral mode of communication where “facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation” (Postman 70). The introduction of the photograph further damaged our culture’s ability to carry on serious public conversation. Postman holds that language is “the medium we use to challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what comes into view, what is on the surface,” but photography “offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (Postman 73). The creation of the television built on the problems of the telegraph and the photograph “raising the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection” (Postman 78).

Postman, in the sixth chapter, expands upon this critique of the television. He succinctly states that “television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend, it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification” (Postman 86). Therefore, everything on television exhibits these biases, in spite of subject matter. In chapters seven through ten Postman goes to great lengths to develop this argument and point out specifically how the television damages our cultural ability to communicate about news, religion, politics, and education.

As I read this book for the first time, I honestly did not like what I read. It felt like an attack my way of living and the way I grew up. But Postman’s arguments are so well laid out that they are difficult to merely discount offhand and must be dealt with. The background information that Postman begins with sets the foundation for the rest of his argument by pointing out how certain mediums have different biases. His most compelling arguments, I would say, revolve around the impact of the television on the way we think, communicate, and view the world. I have witnessed and can affirm the decline of public discourse because of this lack of context, logic, and seriousness. We are more aware of world events, but we also take things a lot less seriously because of this constant immersion in information. We have a hard time putting together extended, complex arguments, because we are used to pieces of information being communicated in a quick, unrelated fashion.

My one critique of this book is that I wish Postman had lived longer and been able to edit it to include a section on the impact of the Internet. In this book I think Postman assumes the television will remain a prevalent form of technology for a long period of time, and fails to account for how technology will continue to change. The Internet is already beginning to displace the television as our primary form of communication and entertainment. I would argue that much of what Postman says about the television can be transcribed to the Internet, but it is not a perfect correlation. I did not grow up with cable TV, so I cannot relate to watching the television for new, politics, and religion. But I can understand going to the Internet as an authority on all of these things. I think the Internet offers more choice and variety than the television, but still suffers from many of the constraints of the visual basis and brief, irrelevant information.

The main piece of application that I would take from Amusing Ourselves to Death is that we need to be aware of the effects and biases of the television and other digital media. Many of these forms of technology have a place as entertainment, but struggle to accurately and winsomely convey ideas. Knowing that the television has its basis in entertainment, I think that we should be skeptical of the “serious” information portrayed on the screen. As a general rule it would be good for members of society to limit their digital media consumption, in order to break away from some of the addicting, destructive tendencies of these types of technology. It also would be beneficial to try to find other, typographically based forms of communication as a medium for more serious, complex discourse.

I do not think that we should throw technology away completely. Our digital culture has both strengths and weaknesses. In order to get the most out of our current technology, we need to be aware of these leanings, play to the strengths, and try to work around the weaknesses. It is paramount that we find a balance between overreacting about the woes of technology and praising its merits. This book is a great conversation starter and deals with a topic that most of us have never thought about. Due to Postman’s logical and compelling argument, this book should leave us, as inhabitants of this technological world, with much to consider.

 

For further reading, here’s a link to Postman’s  book.

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If you have thoughts or reactions to the post, please leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading!