While it is possible to hammer a nail with the thick end of a screw driver, it isn’t recommended. That is what Neil Postman believes we are doing with television. He begins the chapter with three silly ways television supports the “literate tradition”: a light to read by, an electronic bulletin board, and a book shelf. He does this to make fun of what he calls “rear-view mirror thinking.”
Rear-view mirror thinking: the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one.Page 84
For example: thinking of a car as a fast horse, a light bulb as a strong candle (84). The problem with this is that television is not an extension of the literate tradition, it works against it. Postman argues that television is not an extension of a book or literacy. It is an extension of the telegraph and photograph (see chapter 5).
Not everything is a nail
Consider the wisdom saying: “When all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.” Why is this true? Well, a hammer is going to produce a certain type of thing based on it’s design. This also means the hammer is not universally useful. A hammer is a piece of technology that produces something. So is television. This is why we need to make a distinction between technology and a medium. The comparison Postman makes is:
Technology : Medium
Brain : Mind
Just as the brain is the physical tool which produces the mind so a technology produces a medium that will have a specific shape and function. The inevitable result is each technology becomes “a metaphor waiting to unfold” (84).
Television’s inherent bias
As we saw a moment ago every technology has a bias. Postman says, “Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral” (84). TV’s inherent bias is toward entertainment. This is because it is primarily a visual media. It’s concern is to keep people entertained. The cardinal sin is boredom. This explains why the networks don’t let scenes linger or allow for substantive debate. People will turn the channel. As opposed to literature the aim is for simple to understand and emotional gratification. We don’t get it, but it makes us feel good (or angry). Postman states the resulting problem:
The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining…
No business but show business
Thus, the effect of television is to make entertainment the primary medium by which we interact with the world. Sit-coms and dramas aren’t the only things designed to entertain us. The news is there to dazzle us as well. Postman says we shouldn’t judge the networks for this is what TV demands. Not all the news fit to print but all the news to be seen. And that requires a different approach.
At this point Postman gives examples of how entertainment has taken over serious discourse. First, is a network discussion about a controversial movie. But since this was on TV there was no time given to actually discuss anything. People made their points and refused to engage with what anyone else was saying. They give fine performances but no real arguments. Other examples display the presence of show business in churches, hospitals, public schools, universities, the court room, and politics. Everything is show business now.
Postman is not saying it is impossible to have a real debate or intellectual discussion. But to do so is to use TV for something it is not designed for. It is also to swim against the tide of other programs which are not concerned to do so. Postman concludes:
Recently a pastor of a mega church was dribbling around a makeshift basketball court in order to attract attention from his audience. It certainly was remarkable but not in a good way. The argument for this sort of thing is to appeal to people where they are. On the other side of it are guys like me who want to sing more of the Psalms in church services. We must beware of allowing entertainment to dictate how we worship. Yet at the same time we must not make our worship services inaccessible to those who would come in. There is nothing virtuous about an organ. But it is not the same danger. For while the traditional church faces the danger of making their worship service unintelligible to the newcomer, the entertainment church is in danger of making their worship unintelligible to God. This is why we commit ourselves to the elements of worship clearly prescribed in the scriptures: Read the Bible, pray the Bible, preach the Bible, sing the bible and see the Bible (in the sacraments).
Postman’s questions (85) are important for us to ask of any technology:
1) What is (a smartphone/Facebook/YouTube/Twitter)?
2) What kinds of conversations does it permit?
3) What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages?
4) What sort of culture does it produce?
These are challenging questions. They are challenging because we won’t like the answers. As you run them down we find a culture that is very aware in a shallow sense, impulsive, quick to judge, anxious, impotent, frustrated, and disconnected.
Contrary to this is the rise of long-form articles and conversations on YouTube or podcasts. In the latter you will find one to two hour conversations which delve deep into issues. They often note how this would not be possible on cable news. There you can only go for sound bites. Yet often these are deep dives into information that is relatively unconnected to our lives. How much national politics do I really need to be aware of? How long should I be on Twitter? How does a smartphone help my life?
We must let go of this blind faith that technology is a neutral all-purpose good. It isn’t. Every technology has a bias and a use. The question each of us needs to be asking is: What am I using this technology for? To do otherwise is to allow technology to influence our mind in ways we are unaware of. I agree with Cal Newport that I do not want to entrust my mental health to twenty-something techies in Silicon Valley.
What about you? How do you see entertainment in the various areas of our lives? What is the solution? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!