January 30, 2006
Guest Writer Andrew Postman: Introduction to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death by His Dad, Neil Postman
"When Jon Stewart goes on CNN’s Crossfire to make this very point – that serious news and show business ought to be distinguishable, for the sake of public discourse and the republic – the hosts seem incapable even of understanding the words coming out of his mouth."
Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, was my teacher throughout graduate school, my friend, colleague and hero; he showed me what a critic was supposed to do. Andrew Postman is his son, and a writer, who delivered the eulogy after Neil’s death in Oct. 2003. I am therefore quite honored to present for the first time online…
Special to PressThink
Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition
of Amusing Ourselves to Death
(Penguin Books, 2006; Used by permission)
by Andrew Postman
A book of social commentary…published 20 years ago? You’re not busy enough writing emails, returning calls, downloading tunes, playing games (online, PlayStation, Game Boy), checking out websites, sending text messages, IM’ing, Tivoing, watching what you’ve Tivoed, browsing through magazines and newspapers, reading new books – now you’ve got to stop and read a book that first appeared in the last century, not to mention millennium? Come on – like, your outlook on today could seriously be rocked by this plain-spoken provocation about The World of 1985, a world yet to be infiltrated by the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hundreds, DVDs, call-waiting, caller ID, blogs, flat-screens, HDTV and iPods? Is it really plausible that this slim volume, with its once-urgent premonitions about the nuanced and deep-seated perils of television, could feel timely today, in the Age of Computers? Really, could this book about how TV is turning all public life (education, religion, politics, journalism) into entertainment; how the image is undermining other forms of communication, particularly the written word; and how our bottomless appetite for TV will make content so abundantly available, context be damned, that we’ll be overwhelmed by “information glut” until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we’ve lost as long as we’re being amused…Can such a book possibly have relevance to you and The World of 2006 and beyond?
I think you’ve answered your own question.
I, too, think the answer is yes, but as Neil Postman’s son, I’m biased. Where are we to find objective corroboration that reading Amusing Ourselves to Death in 2006, in a society that worships TV and technology as ours does, is nearly an act of defiance, one of those I-didn’t-realize-it-was-dark-until-someone-flipped-the-switch encounters with an illuminating intellect?
Ask the Students
Let’s not take the word of those who studied under my father at New York University, many of whom have gone on to teach in their own college (and occasionally high school) courses what he argues in these pages. These fine minds are, as my father’s was, of a bygone era, a different media environment, and their biases may make them, as they made him, hostage of another time, perhaps incapable of seeing the present world as it is rather than as they’d like it to be. (One man’s R-rated is another’s PG-13.)
And just to make a clean slate of it, let’s not rely, either, on the opinions of the numerous readers of the original edition of Amusing Ourselves (translated into a dozen languages, including German, Indonesian, Turkish, Danish and, most recently, Chinese), so many of whom wrote to my father, or buttonholed him at public speaking events, to tell him how dead-on his argument was. Their support, while genuine, was expressed over the last two decades, so some of it might be outdated; we’ll disregard the views of these teachers and students, businesspeople and artists, conservatives and liberals, atheists and churchgoers, and all those parents. (We’ll also disregard Roger Waters, co-founder of the legendary band Pink Floyd, whose solo album, Amused to Death, was inspired by the book. Go, Dad.)
So whose opinion matters?
In re-reading this book to figure out what might be said about it twenty years later, I tried to think the way my father would, since he could no longer, nor could I ask him. He died in October 2003, at age 72. Channeling him, I realized immediately who offers the best test of whether Amusing Ourselves to Death is still relevant.
“Teachers are not considered good if they don’t entertain their classes.”
Today’s 18-to-22-year-olds live in a vastly different media environment from the one that existed in 1985. Their relationship to TV differs. Back then, MTV was in its late infancy. Today, news scrolls and corner-of-the-screen promos and “reality” shows and infomercials and 900 channels are the norm. And TV no longer dominates the media landscape. “Screen time” also means hours spent in front of the computer, video monitor, cell phone and handheld. Multitasking is standard. Communities have been replaced by demographics. Silence has been replaced by background noise. It’s a different world. (It’s different for all of us, of course – children, young teens, parents, seniors – but college kids form an especially rich grouping, poised between innocence and sophistication, respect and irreverence.)
When today’s students are assigned Amusing Ourselves to Death, almost none of them have heard of Neil Postman or been exposed to his ideas (he wrote over 20 books, on such subjects as education, language, childhood and technology), suggesting that their views, besides being pertinent, are relatively uncorrupted.
I called several of my father’s former students who are now teachers, and who teach Amusing Ourselves to Death in courses that examine some cross-section of ideas about TV, culture, computing, technology, mass media, communications, politics, journalism, education, religion, and language. I asked the teachers what their students thought of the book, particularly its timeliness. The teachers were kind enough to share many of their students’ thoughts, from papers and class discussion.
“In the book [Postman] makes the point that there is no reflection time in the world anymore,” wrote Jonathan. “When I go to a restaurant everyone’s on their cell phone, talking or playing games. I have no ability to sit by myself and just think.” Said Liz: “It’s more relevant now. In class we asked if, now that there’s cable, which there really wasn’t when the book was written, are there channels that are not just about entertainment? We tried to find one to disprove his theory. One kid said the Weather Channel but another mentioned how they have all those shows on tornadoes and try to make weather fun. The only good example we came up with was C-SPAN, which no one watches.”
Cara: “Teachers are not considered good if they don’t entertain their classes.” Ben (whose professor called him the “class skeptic,” and who, when the book was assigned, groaned, “Why do we have to read this?”): “Postman says TV makes everything about the present – and there we were, criticizing the book because it wasn’t published yesterday.” Reginald: “This book is not just about TV.” Sandra: “The book was absolutely on-target about the 2004 presidential election campaign and debates.” One student pointed out that Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for the California governorship on The Tonight Show.
Postman’s And Now This…
Maria noted that the oversimplification and thinking “fragmentation” promoted by TV-watching may contribute to our Red State/Blue State polarization. Another noted the emergence of a new series of ‘bible magazines,’ whose cover format is modeled on teen magazines, with coverlines like ‘Top 10 Trips to Getting Closer to God’ – “it’s religion mimicking an MTV kind of world,” said the student. Others wondered if the recent surge in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder was an indication of a need to be constantly stimulated.
Kaitlin switched her major to print journalism after reading the book. Andrea would recommend it to anyone concerned with media ethics. Mike said even those who won’t agree with the book’s arguments – as he did not – should still read it, to be provoked. Many students (“left wingers and right wingers both,” said the professor) were especially taken with my father’s “Now…this” idea: the phenomenon whereby the reporting of a horrific event – a rape or a 5-alarm fire or global warming, say – is followed immediately by the anchor’s cheerfully exclaiming “Now…this,” which segues into a story about Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple, or a commercial for lite beer, creating a sequencing of information so random, so disparate in scale and value, as to be incoherent, even psychotic.
Another teacher remarked that students love how the book is told – by a writer who’s at heart a storyteller. “And they love that he refers to books and people they’ve heard of,” she said. Alison: “He doesn’t dumb it down – he makes allusions to great art and poetry. Yet it’s impossible to lose track of his argument.” Matt said that, ironically, “Postman proves you can be entertaining – and without a single picture.”
Of her students’ impressions, one teacher said, “He speaks to them without jargon, in a way in which they feel respected. They feel he’s just having a conversation with them, but inspiring them to think at the same time. ” Another professor noted that “kids come to the conclusion that TV is almost exclusively interested in presenting show business and sensationalism and in making money. Amazing as it seems, they had never realized that before.”
It no doubt appears to you that, after all my grand talk of objectivity, I’ve stacked the deck in favor of the book’s virtue. But that’s honestly the overwhelming reaction– at least among a slice of Generation Y, a population segment that one can imagine has as many reasons not to like the book as to like it. One professor said that in a typical class of 25 students who read the book, 23 will write papers that either praise, or are animated by, its ideas; two will say the book was a stupid waste of time. A 92% rating? There’s no one who expresses an idea – certainly no politician – who wouldn’t take that number.
“A common critique was that he should have offered solutions.”
Of course, students had criticisms of the book, too. Many didn’t appreciate the assault on television – a companion to them, a source of pleasure and comfort – and felt as if they had to defend their culture. Some considered TV their parents’ culture, not theirs – they are of the Internet – so the book’s theses were less relevant. Some thought my father was anti-change, that he so exalted the virtues fostered by the written word and its culture, he was not open to acknowledging many of the positive social improvements TV had brought about, and what a democratic and leveling force it could be. Some disagreed with his assessment that TV is in complete charge: remote control, an abundance of channels, and VCRs and DVRs all enable you to “customize” your programming, even to skip commercials. A common critique was that he should have offered solutions; you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, after all, so what now?
And there was this: Yeah, what he said in 1985 had come startlingly true, we had amused ourselves to death…so why read it?
One professor uses the book in conjunction with an experiment she calls an “e-media fast.” For 24 hours, each student must refrain from electronic media. When she announces the assignment, she told me, 90% of the students shrug, thinking it’s no big deal. But when they realize all the things they must give up for a whole day – cell phone, computer, Internet, TV, car radio, etc. – “they start to moan and groan.” She tells them they can still read books. She acknowledges it will be a tough day, though for roughly 8 of the 24 hours they’ll be asleep. She says if they break the fast – if they answer the phone, say, or simply have to check email – they must begin from scratch.
They actually walk down the street to visit their friend.
“The papers I get back are amazing,” says the professor. “They have titles like ‘The Worst Day of My Life’ or ‘The Best Experience I Ever Had,’ always extreme. I thought I was going to die, they’ll write. I went to turn on the TV but if I did I realized, my God, I’d have to start all over again. Each student has his or her own weakness – for some it’s TV, some the cell phone, some the Internet or their PDA. But no matter how much they hate abstaining, or how hard it is to hear the phone ring and not answer it, they take time to do things they haven’t done in years.
They actually walk down the street to visit their friend. They have extended conversations. One wrote, I thought to do things I hadn’t thought to do ever. The experience changes them. Some are so affected that they determine to fast on their own, one day a month. In that course I take them through the classics – from Plato and Aristotle through today – and years later when former students write or call to say hello the thing they remember is the media fast.”
Like the media fast, Amusing Ourselves is a call to action. It is, in my father’s words, “an inquiry…and a lamentation,” yes, but it aspires to greater things. It is an exhortation to do something. It’s a counterpunch to what my father thought daily TV news was: “inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.” Dad was a lover of history, a champion for collective memory and what we now quaintly refer to as “civilizing influences,” but he did not live in the past. His book urges us to claim a way to be more alert and engaged. My father’s ideas are still here, he isn’t, and it’s time for those of a new generation to take the reins, natives of this brave new world who understand it better.
“’Change changed,’ my father wrote.”
Twenty years isn’t what it used to be. Where once it stood for a single generation, now it seems to stand for three. Everything moves faster. “Change changed,” my father wrote in another book.
A lot has changed since this book appeared. News consumption among the young is way down. Network news and entertainment divisions are far more entwined, despite protests by the news divisions (mostly for their own benefit).
When Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, goes on CNN’s Crossfire to make this very point – that serious news and show business ought to be distinguishable, for the sake of public discourse and the republic – the hosts seem incapable even of understanding the words coming out of his mouth.
The sound bite is now more like a sound nibble, and it’s rare, even petulant, to hear someone challenge its absurd insubstantiality; the question of how television affects us has receded into the background (Dad’s words, not mine, from 1985). Fox News has established itself, and thrived. Corporate conglomeration is up, particularly among media companies. Our own media companies don’t provide truly gruesome war images as part of the daily news, but then they didn’t do so 20 years ago either (though 40 years ago they did). The quality of graphics (i.e., the reality quotient) of computer and video games is way up.
Communities exist that didn’t, thanks to the Internet, particularly to peer-to-peer computing. A new kind of collaborative creativity abounds, thanks to the “open source” movement, which gave us the Linux operating system. However, other communities are collapsing: far fewer people join clubs that meet regularly, fewer families eat dinner together, and people don’t have friends over or know their neighbors the way they used to. More school administrators and politicians and business executives hanker to wire schools for computers, as if that is the key to improving American education.
Huxley, not Orwell
The number of hours the average American watches TV has remained steady, at about 4½ hours a day, every day (by age 65, a person will have spent 12 uninterrupted years in front of the TV). Childhood obesity is way up. Some things concern our children more than they used to, some not at all. Maybe there’s more hope than there was, maybe less. Maybe the amount is a constant.
Substantive as this book is, it was predicated on a “hook”: that one British writer (George Orwell) with a frightening vision of the future, a vision that many feared would come true, was mostly off-base, while another British writer (Aldous Huxley) with a frightening vision of the future, a vision less well-known and feared, was scarily on target. My father argued his point, persuasively, but it was a point for another time – the Age of Television. New technologies and media are in the ascendancy.
Fortunately – and this, more than anything, is what I think makes Amusing Ourselves to Death so emphatically relevant – my father asked such good questions that they can be asked of non-television things, of all sorts of transforming developments and events that have happened since 1985, and since his death, and of things still unformed, for generations to come (though “generations to come” may someday mean a span of three years). His questions can be asked about all technologies and media.
What happens to us when we become infatuated with and then seduced by them? Do they free us or imprison us? Do they improve or degrade democracy? Do they make our leaders more accountable or less so? Our system more transparent or less so? Do they make us better citizens or better consumers? Are the trade-offs worth it? If they’re not worth it, yet we still can’t stop ourselves from embracing the next new thing because that’s just how we’re wired, then what strategies can we devise to maintain control? Dignity? Meaning?
“It’s a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century.”
My father was not a curmudgeon about all this, as some thought. It was never optimism he lacked; it was certainty. “We must be careful in praising or condemning because the future may hold surprises for us,” he wrote. Nor did he fear TV (as some thought) across the board. Junk television was fine. “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health,” he wrote. “60 Minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are.”
A student of Dad’s, a teacher himself, says his own students are more responsive, not less, to Amusing Ourselves than they were five or ten years ago. “When the book first came out, it was ahead of its time, and some people didn’t understand its reach,” he says. “It’s a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century.” In 1986, soon after the book was published and started to make ripples, Dad was on ABC’s Nightline, discussing with Ted Koppel the effect TV can have on society if we let it control us, rather than vice versa. As I recall, at one juncture, to illustrate his point that our brief attention span and our appetite for feel-good content can short-circuit any meaningful discourse, Dad said, “For example, Ted, we’re having an important discussion about the culture but in thirty seconds we’ll have to break for a commercial to sell cars or toothpaste.”
Mr. Koppel, one of the rare serious figures on network television, smiled wryly – or was it fatigue? “Actually, Dr. Postman,” he said, “it’s more like ten seconds.”
There’s still time.
Brooklyn, New York
(Copyright © Andrew Postman 2005; all rights reserved. Used by permission)
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Andrew Postman is the author of half a dozen books, on a range of subjects diverse enough to be either pleasing or disturbing. He has written the novel Now I Know Everything and several non-fiction books, including one each on sports, computers, human accomplishment at various ages, the life of a plastic surgeon, and, most recently, how to die well (as co-author of Chasing Daylight, with Eugene O’Kelly). Andrew’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, New York, Glamour and Parenting. He lives with his wife and children in Brooklyn, New York, not far from his father’s grounds of stomping.
PressThink, Oct. 7, 2003. Neil Postman (1931-2003): Some Recollections.
Pressthink, March 25, 2004. Remembering Neil Postman, 1931-2003.
This site, rememberingneilpostman.com, has links, recollections by fans of his writing, and some video of the man.
Neil Postman Online has links to his writings on the Web, and writings about him.
(Feb. 2) At Fishbowl NY is this Q & A, with some amusing pics. PressThinking with Jay Rosen: The Times of Our Times, and Other Media Preoccupations.
Wonkette had some reactions to it. “Look, if the best scandal that the Post can come up with is that they deleted comments from a blog, can they really be the nation’s top paper? I mean, the Times has three bigger scandals than that break daily between their early and late editions.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at January 30, 2006 1:33 AM
I taught a class last semester called "Information Dystopia." It was, essentially, an exploration of Postman's thesis in Amusing Ourselves to Death that Huxley, not Orwell, was right -- that we would be enslaved by what we love, not by what we fear.
We read Age of Propaganda (Pratkanis and Aronson), 1984, Brave New World, Brave New World Revisited, then, finally, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
As it turns out, on this trip through these books, I sensed that both were right -- both Orwell and Huxley.
Huxley predicted media centralization and a 24-hour entertainment culture. But Orwell predicted the use of fear-based propaganda to promote endless war.
In fact, in 2006, it looks like both are right. The way our culture treats information is Huxleyan, the way our government communicates with us is Orwellian. It's a strange brew. And a scary one.
Postman, of course, remains correct -- the typographic culture that birthed American democracy has been fundamentally altered by the rise of television -- and not for the better.
He called for something to speak back to television. I have marvelled more than once that John Stewart is EXACTLY what Postman calls for in the conclusion to AOTD -- a comedy show that critiques the way in which we receive information.
I would say we have moved from a textual to a televisual to now a hypertextual culture. I am seeing that the hypertextual, decentralized Internet is subverting the topdown, narrowcast televisual medium in ways that Postman allowed for when he mentioned "unforeseen" technologies over the horizon.
In a sense, with blogs like this very place right here, we have returned to Postman's "Typographic America", in which every American is a pamphleteer, with as wide a circulation as her writings can muster.
The difference between video content on television and video content on the Internet is that the Net is interactive -- and it is interactive multimedially ... (how's that for wordsmithy ...?)
We can actually talk back to our online video content. We are, in fact, doing so right now. We can also link to said content, watch it, listen to it, and then come back here and critique it.
That is a significant development.
Especially because we are potentially thousands of miles apart, and strangers.
We can also video back to our news content, sing back to our video content, cartoon about our music, and write about our cartooning -- all of it just clicks away.
This space is really, once again, a prime example of a hypertextual space that subverts the televisual and the textual. Look at how discussions here creep up into the papers, and occasionally onto television. If that isn't public interest and public access, I don't know what is. The voices of nearly anonymous bloggers can be as loud as those of long-established opinion makers -- without the financial backing of a megamultimediaconglomerate.
That's not to say that everybody online is doing something that is great for hypertextual America as a subversion of televisual America -- but likely neither was everything in typographic America a "Common Sense" or The Federalist.
As Postman would say, the medium determines the shape of the message -- and the shape of the message in a hypertextual world is pandimensional and omnidirectional.
So, you know, the multimedia are the messages.
I used to think people were slack for not taking politics seriously, but I changed my mind about 10 years ago. The ability to ignore political events is a sign that your people have better things to do, and political apathy doesn't mean that people are personally apathic.
Ever notice where you routinely find really high election turnout percentages? In countries where life is really awful, and people have to take politics seriously, because win or lose can mean life or death.
In America? Not so much.
1988: Press coverage of the Bush-Dukakis campaign hit a new low, but from a wider perspective it mirrored national interest. There was a little Reagan fatigue, but for the most part people seemed rather unalarmed by the world in 1988.
1992: The country was not happy with the direction things appeared to be headed, and political interest was sharp, informed and specific. My phone rang all summer and fall with readers asking smart questions and encouraging us to stay on the subject, ask tough questions, give it to 'em straight. we couldn't shovel readers wonky graphs and charts fast enough in 1992.
1996: Having studied the lessons of 1992 and perfected the art of wonky, issues-related political coverage, we delivered our readers a truckload of it. Nobody seemed to care. In a potentially related story, the country was doing well financially and the forecast called for more of the same.
2000: See 1996. Perhaps sensing a trend, political coverage seemed more shallow and superficial again.
2004: The lines were deeper, the mood was meaner. But unlike 1992, the last presidential election cycle in which people seemed to really be paying attention, in 2004 nobody could agree on the basic facts of the debate.
I don't think it happens consciously, but I think press coverage of politics tends to reflect the mood of the nation. We're kinda slutty that way.
The point being: It's a two-way transaction, but if you want better media, keep demanding it. News is a business. If the bosses think most people want the hard stuff, they'll try delivering the hard stuff again. The lesson they've learned from the market at the moment is that the hard stuff costs them readers and doesn't pay off in share value.
Few comments in this thread, Jay, but this is one of your more important recent posts. Postman was, and still is, right on the money.
As a journo, viewing politics and the media, I see a connection between the current state of affairs in DC and "Entertaining..."
As a result of EOSTD, the electorate is either uniformed, disinformed, disarmed, distracted or deluged with minutia, and as a result is all to willing to ignore the whole thing.
Further, their attention spans are too short to reason things through, so problems propagate without much attempt to understand or solve them.
For example, early 21st century Republicans have gone from revolution to corruption much faster than the Democrats of a generation before, and I think this is at least partly because an entertainment-soaked popular culture never acknowledged what was happening, or never tried to meaningfully inform the electrorate.
It used to be different. Imagine what Murrow would have done about the K Street Project, which for all practical purposes was an attempt to permanently unbalance the two-party system -- a sort of low-profile revolution or slow-moving coup.
But K Street didn't bleed, so it didn't lead, and besides, it would have taken more than a minute to explain.
And that is a single, tiny example.
Another part of this is the desire to reach the 18-34 year-old male demographic which practically defines anti-intellectualism, ignorance, self-absorption, and crudity. Last month, someone at a major paper called it Neanderthal TV, and they weren't far wrong.
This has led nearly all media down a path toward sound and fury -- with quick cuts -- signifying nothing.
So, I think we really are circling the drain here, both media and society/government.
The question is whether and how we insert a plug before it's too late, and as to that, I have no ideas.
Meanwhile, as if EOSTD weren't enough, check this out:
Emory Study Lights Up The Political Brain
January 31, 2006. When it comes to forming opinions and making judgments on hot political issues, partisans of both parties don't let facts get in the way of their decision-making, according to a new Emory University study. The research sheds light on why staunch Democrats and Republicans can hear the same information, but walk away with opposite conclusions.
The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.
"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.
1. If you're suggesting that U.S. history will continue to be rewritten so that the Nazis come out as the good guys, well, shoot. You're underscoring my point. (BTW, MSG's capacity is 20,000, not 30,000. So make that 20,000 Republicans cheering for the Nazis as they evaded Allied forces).
2. I don't "just 'know'" that Osama was not linked with Saddam. I read it in the 9/11 Commission Report, which found overtures from each toward the other, years apart, neither of which was acted upon ... and "no operational relationship."
3. I'm pretty darn sure I was comparing Fox to PBS and NPR, not the NYT.
This discussion is about Postman's book -- which about television, and how discourse is degraded when it comes via television, because everything that comes via television comes through as entertainment.
I would rather not have veered into this awful partisan debate again ... but I have yet to see a television "news" channel run by Democratic Party mediameisters. Is there a Democratic version of Roger Ailes? Methinks not. Methinks that's why they're out of power.
It is clear that the Republicans are far better at using television than the Democrats.
Here's Republican media strategist-cum-Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, as quoted in Pratkanis and Aronson, Age of Propaganda:
If you could master one element of personal communications that is more powerful than anything we've discussed, it is the quality of being likeable. I call it the magic bullet, because if your audience likes you, they'll forgive just about everything you do wrong. If they don't like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it just doesn't matter.
Why do you think the President is out on a PR tour, making jokes rather than explaining policy?
Likeability: credibility, as seen on TV.
I cannot seem to be able to link to this piece that is embedded within a very long article, so I have pasted it below:
Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind
Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox
The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox.
The paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows that organic life evolved very quickly after earth's surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.
So, it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi's Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.
I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi's Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.
The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don't seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it's even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.
Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson's King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: MP3, DVD, TiVo, XM radio, Verizon cellphones, Spice cable, EverQuest online, instant messaging, Ecstasy, BC Bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental, and social development (athletics, homework, dating) are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute — the MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.
Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Freud's pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. We narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broad-casting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.
Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.
Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.
My dangerous idea-within-an-idea is that this, too, is already happening. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists, already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve Contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox. They will toast each other not in a soft-porn Holodeck, but in a sacred nursery.
For the individual, it is all about maximizing the fun factor, but evolution is a result of self-selection, and our genes are coded to support the survival of the species, not the individual. We may be reaching a point where the self interest (pleasure seeking) instincts of the individual are trumping the evolutionary genetic programming designed to perpetuate the human species.
I read Amusing Ourselves to Death when I was in high school. Back in Ye Olde when if I wanted a book I had to physically go to a building that had a lot of books in it, and I was restricted to reading only the stuff in that building, at least for that week. Rows of mysterious shiny covers. (You are in a twisty maze of passages, all alike, said a text game I played on primitive computers not long before that. The bookstore was like that, too -- you could only go certain ways, but you still wanted to find out what was in the next room).
The only large bookstores were in Harvard Square, and it was an event for me to go to them (now, of course, they seem cute and tiny in comparison with B&N). There it was, shiny, I bought it and took it home. And I read it.
I still remember passages from that book 20 years later, which isn't something I can say about many books.
Ah, for a time machine, I would pay serious money to see a debate between Neil Postman and Steven Johnson, whose "Everything Bad is Good For You" argues that TV and video games, are, well, good for us.
By the time I read Amusing Ourselves To Death I had already had a computer of my own for about four years. The first thing I wanted to do with it was write long creaky gothic ghost stories, because at 12 I read a lot of them and enjoyed them, and I wanted to play too. One of the pernicious aspects, it seemed to me, of media -- and the music and art education I received in school -- is that it was one way: you could only consume. Music classes did not teach students to write music; it did not make us literate. And of course, being literate in this sense about TV and movies at the time I read Amusing Ourselves To Death was a nonsensical statement: where were you going to get the equipment, not to mention your own TV station or movie studio?
The thing that compels me about my gizmos is that they enable me to Make Stuff. Each year I get to teach myself to Make New Stuff. Not only can I write creaky ghost stories, I can have a weird kind of online "newspaper." Every year, Best Buy provides me with fascinating new gizmos that allow me to make even More New Stuff. I have a magical camera whose film never runs out, so now I actually know how to take a picture, because I'm not afraid of the cost of film or "real" cameras. Two years ago, I couldn't have recorded an interview and edited the resulting audio. Now the equipment costs $39, and the audio editing software is free. This Christmas, eBay Santa put a digital videocamera under my tree. Hey, I love documentaries. Now I get to play too. I am not making any claims for the quality of my output -- but I can tell you that the intellectual challenge of learning how to Make New Stuff -- instead of just passively Consuming Stuff -- has been one of my primary intellectual engines in my adult life. As with reading a difficult book, I have to sit there and stare blankly at a lot of stuff for a long time, until I get it.
When I first read Amusing Ourselves To Death, I was, effectively, the only person in the world I knew who had read that book. Today, right now, I am in a "room" of 50? 100? people who have all read it.
We might decry the failure of real-world communities, but what about people whose real world is brain dead? Particularly if those people can't drive, and don't even know where to go to find a non-brain-dead RL environment?
I would have traded you guys over study hall in a New York minute, and I would have been better off for it, too.
Despite everything I've said here, Postman is still right. A life consuming is not life. A life of entertainment is not life. A life oriented towards leisure is a life spent inside the Tombs of the Emperor Kings. Dead as a doornail.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...