Technology is a metaphor more than it is a tool.

I just finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Written in 1985, Postman is concerned primarily with the effect visual media (ie. television) has on public discourse. I expected to find Postman’s concerns and arguments a bit dated and worn. They aren’t. This book freaked me out. It is required reading for anyone interested in the social implications of mobile technology.

First, let me point out that Postman does not address the phenomenon of mobile information technology anywhere in his book. He couldn’t. The mobile internet didn’t exist in 1985. Still, his concerns about what gets lost when TV culture replaces typographic (ie. “written”) culture seem even more apropos to the mobile internet device age. You don’t have to read between the lines much to glimpse that we may be farther down the Road of Cultural Collapse than we would prefer to believe.

On the other hand, Postman does seem a bit ridiculous when he speculates in 1985 that this whole computer-thing might just actually be a bunch of hype.

Set that aside. Here’s what’s important to me about this book:

Postman argues that any pervasive communication technology is not only a tool used by people to convey a message, but that communication technologies also shape the types of messages that are conveyed to suit the particular needs of the technology.

This is pretty much classic Marshall McLuhan — “the medium is the message”. Postman goes farther. The medium is not only the message. The medium favors a certain type of message and precludes other types of messages. The technology creates biases, assumptions and mental constructs that shape the realities of the message sender and receiver. In fact, the very language of “sender” and “receiver” is a biased way of thinking about shared information.

Typographic culture requires careful thought, rewards deliberation and cannot help but exist in context with many, many other written documents. Typographic culture gave rise to the idea of history. That today is different from yesterday and that yesterday’s experiences, through good writing and good reading, can actually be more real to us than today’s experience. Typographic culture always conspires to make sense of things. It can’t be helped. Ideas, when written down, become fixed in a way that begs analysis, observation and careful consideration. In other words, typographic culture is logical.

Visual culture is fleeting. Visual culture rewards abbreviation, quick seques and high emotional impact. Visual messages by nature appeal more to our emotional selves than our rational selves. Visual culture prevents historical understanding. Visual messages, such as photographs and video, lift events out of their historical context and can only be experienced as something that is happening now. That’s why TV shows that depict historical happenings often have to label these historical visual interludes with text so we understand that a time-shift has occured. Visual images are immediate. They are fleeting and they exist completely outside of context.

I’m simplifying a bit here, but you get the idea. Visual culture is very, very different from typographic culture. Visual culture makes everything seem equally urgent and immediate so that, in the end, nothing is really truly urgent.

I think I’m loosing my thread here a bit. I wanted to talk a bit about how technology serves as metaphor. I will have to take another pass at that idea, I think.

For now, I’m thinking very much about the iPad and the ways in which it blends visual and typographic culture. I’m wondering if the iPad and other mobile internet devices can represent a healthy hybrid of sorts, something new, or, as Postman seems to suggest is inevitable, whether the iPad represents the complete subjugation of text to image. More on that later.

A few other threads to pull at in future posts:

  • The telegraph represented the first major step into an unsettling, incoherent information environment where information no longer represented something personally meaningful, but becomes something akin to data where all information is equal. This precipitated the “ripped from the headlines” quality I so detest in TV news and news-esque shows like Law and Order.
  • Postman presents the idea of actionable and non-actionable information and points out that much of what we are being offered as “news of the day” is actually quite useless to us and renders us completely incapable of meaningful action.
  • The telegraph shifted the burden of sense-making from the sender to the receiver. The sender just reports “facts”. The receiver is left on his own to figure out what these “facts” mean or how they might be useful.
  • The information environment created by the telegraph and photograph created such a glut of contextless information that the rise of Trivia Culture became inevitable to give us something to do with all the things we know of but don’t really know about. Examples: crossword puzzles, radio and TV quiz shows; Trivial Pursuit.
  • “Each technology has an agenda of its own.” (84)
  • “Television is our culture’s principle mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.” (92)
  • The television commercial is anti-capitalist. Adam Smith would have hated TV commercials for how they damaged the pure capitalist model.
The biggest take-away for me: Aldous Huxley was right; George Orwell was wrong. Totalitarian regimes from either end of the political spectrum are not the greatest threat to liberal democracy. Good, right-minded people will almost always gladly trade mental rigor for mental amusement without ever really consciously realizing they have made a choice.
Okay. that’s certainly enough for tonight. Lots to chew on. I plan to come back to Postman’s book several times over the next few weeks to explore what implications it might hold for the age we find ourselves in.
You might detect that I am feeling a bit uneasy at what we might find. My iPad is above all else my most favorite amusement.
Help me out here. Post your comments. I’m going to need help sorting out all these ideas. 



2 thoughts on “Technology is a metaphor more than it is a tool.

  1. I dunno. Predicting the future is a mug’s game, but right now, to me, internet culture seems completely different than the TV culture that it sounds like Postman had such a good handle on. The difficulty is that our American culture actually straddles both cultures. Gen X, Boomers, and older are more firmly rooted in the emotional, contextless, visual TV and film media, and the younger generations are ironically more comfortable with a new, more text-based media. Our students by and large don’t leave voicemails, they send texts. Rather than lacking in context like a TV news soundbite, any internet search brings an overwhelming amount of context. Internet culture is more democratic than TV–everyone is a potential content producer, no longer are the corporations and governments solely in control of the “message”. The Arab Spring and, perhaps disturbingly, the London riots are good examples of this. Rather less seriously, so is–everybody can review every item for sale, giving a more rounded perspective of a book/movie/whatever than one could have ever gotten from an official, on-the-payroll, TV or newspaper reviewer from the previous generation.

    The things that worry me: 1. Privacy is going to be hard to maintain in a world where we are all “superstar” content producers. 2. Governments and corporations don’t like the diffusion of their power and are taking steps to make the internet less democratic–but it’s such a young medium that most of us don’t even know it’s happening and aren’t sure what to do about it if we do. 3. If everyone is a free or low cost content producer, how is anyone going to make a living doing creative work? Or, best case scenario, does it mean more people will make a living and fewer will make a killing? 4. As technology improves and voice recognition becomes a reality, will the currently text-favored nature of the internet give way to something more similar to the audio-video of the last century?

    It is an interesting time, with most everything in flux. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I see a lot of ways things could go horribly wrong, too….


  2. Pingback: Swimming in Media « Ubiquitous. Quotidian.

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