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Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.
Although the Constitution makes no mention of it, it would appear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running for high political office.
Indeed, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.
When a professor teaches with a sense of humor, people walk away remembering.”1 She did not say what they remember or of what use their remembering is. But she has a point: It’s great to be an entertainer.
There is no shortage of critics who have observed and recorded the dissolution of public discourse in America and its conversion into the arts of show business. But most of them, I believe, have barely begun to tell the story of the origin and meaning of this descent into a vast triviality.
We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators, meaning that none of us has the wit to know the whole truth, the time to tell it if we believed we did, or an audience so gullible as to accept it.
For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.
lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.
Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture. This idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light media—let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space-conquering tool available—do not have news of the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.
the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.
all of this sounds suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is the message,
the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.
Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.
it may lead one to confuse a message with a metaphor.
A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality.
time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.
Thou shalt not make mechanical representations of time.
Philosophy cannot exist without criticism, and writing makes it possible and convenient to subject thought to a continuous and concentrated scrutiny. Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist—all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading.
a shift from the ear to the eye as an organ of language processing.
from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics.
When Galileo remarked that the language of nature is written in mathematics, he meant it only as a metaphor.
And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on television, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism.
we do not measure a culture by its output
of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.
how media are implicated in our epistemologies.
As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself.
Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness.
there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed.
You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth.
Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned.
“Seeing is believing” has always had a preeminent status as an epistemological axiom, but “saying is believing,” “reading is believing,” “counting is believing,” “deducing is believing,” and “feeling is believing” are others that have risen or fallen in importance as cultures have undergone media change.
As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it. Every philosophy is the philosophy of a stage of life, Nietzsche remarked. To which we might add that every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development. Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.
Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, it follows that what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.
We have reached, I believe, a critical mass in that electronic media have decisively and irreversibly changed the character of our symbolic environment.
We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word.
every new technology for thinking involves a trade-off.
Media change does not necessarily result in equilibrium. It sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it is the other way around.
The invention of the printing press itself is a paradigmatic example. Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Typography made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition. Typography assisted in the growth of the nation-state but thereby made patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion.
although literacy rates are notoriously difficult to assess, there is sufficient evidence (mostly drawn from signatures) that between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent, quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.2 (The literacy rate for women in those colonies is estimated to have run as high as 62 percent in the years 1681-1697.3)
The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.
The first printing press in America was established in 1638 as an adjunct of Harvard University, which was two years old at the time.
This odd practice is less a reflection of an American’s obstinacy than of his modeling his conversational style on the structure of the printed word.
a kind of printed orality,
“Is the Iliad possible,” he asks rhetorically, “when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?”
Marx understood well that the press was not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience.
Not only did Lincoln and Douglas write all their speeches in advance, but they also planned their rebuttals in writing. Even the spontaneous interactions between the speakers were expressed in a sentence structure, sentence length and rhetorical organization which took their form from writing.
the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content.
Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result.
the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowledge.”
To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.
Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture.
Women were probably more adept readers than men, and even in the frontier states the principal means of public discourse issued from the printed word. Those who could read had, inevitably, to become part of the conversation.
the Age of Exposition ---> the Age of Show Business.
For telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country.” It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.... We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.
The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.
The penny newspaper, emerging slightly before telegraphy, in the 1830’s, had already begun the process of elevating irrelevance to the status of news.
It was not long until the fortunes of newspapers came to depend not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed.
As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant.
How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?
In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.
Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives.
The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography.
burn its contents.
Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal.
“Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.
The photograph also lacks a syntax, which deprives it of a capacity to argue with the world.
As Susan Sontag has observed, a photograph implies “that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.”
It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable.
the crossword puzzle became a popular form of diversion in America at just that point when the telegraph and the photograph had achieved the transformation of news from functional information to decontextualized fact.
The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context;
the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful “Trivial Pursuit.”
Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?
The pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.
Theirs was a “language” that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. Theirs was a duet of image and instancy, and together they played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America.
As a small, ironic example of this point, consider this: In the past few years, we have been learning that the computer is the technology of the future. We are told that our children will fail in school and be left behind in life if they are not “computer literate.” We are told that we cannot run our businesses, or compile our shopping lists, or keep our checkbooks tidy unless we own a computer. Perhaps some of this is true. But the most important fact about computers and what they mean to our lives is that we learn about all of this from television.
Television has achieved the status of “meta-medium”—an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.
television has achieved the status of “myth,” as Roland Barthes uses the word.
myth a way of understanding the world
A myth is a way of thinking so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it is invisible.
What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?
Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral.
Each technology has an agenda of its own.
It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold.
All of this has occurred simultaneously with the decline of America’s moral and political prestige, worldwide. American television programs are in demand not because America is loved but because American television is loved.
what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.
The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.
Had Irving Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song, he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There’s No Business But Show Business.
The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal.
I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.
The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.
“Television is the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. ” Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody.
America’s newest and highly successful national newspaper, USA Today, is modeled precisely on the format of television.
Radio, of course, is the least likely medium to join in the descent into a Huxleyan world of technological narcotics. It is, after all, particularly well suited to the transmission of rational, complex language.
NOTE: Podcasting? Is this an heir to radio and that print-orality?
Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything is televisible.
to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence.
“Television,” Billy Graham has written, “is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man.
This is gross technological naivete. If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the context in which the message is experienced is altogether different from what it was in Jesus’ time, we may assume that its social and psychological meaning is different, as well.
the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism.
There are, of course, counterarguments to the claim that television degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion.
Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice.
the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital.
The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products.
The television commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has accomplished this in two ways. The first is by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns.
Being a celebrity is quite different from being well known.
Although it may go too far to say that the politician-as-celebrity has, by itself, made political parties irrelevant, there is certainly a conspicuous correlation between the rise of the former and the decline of the latter.
Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, remarked in his acceptance speech in Stockholm that our age is characterized by a “refusal to remember”; he cited, among other things, the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place.
an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs....
We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years.”
“Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.”
“Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.
Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set is a private preserve. Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen.
Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images. Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice.
Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen. Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.
every television show is educational. Just as reading a book—any kind of book —promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same.
“The Little House on the Prairie,” “Cheers” and “The Tonight Show” are as effective as “Sesame Street” in promoting what might be called the television style of learning.
If we are to blame “Sesame Street” for anything, it is for the pretense that it is any ally of the classroom.
it is important to add that whether or not “Sesame Street” teaches children their letters and numbers is entirely irrelevant. We may take as our guide here John Dewey’s observation that the content of a lesson is the least important thing about learning.
As he wrote in Experience and Education: “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes ... may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history.... For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.”
the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns.
We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic image.
This is why I think it accurate to call television a curriculum.
As I understand the word, a curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth. Television, of course, does exactly that, and does it relentlessly. In so doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By which I mean, it damn near obliterates it.
Thou shalt have no prerequisites
Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
Thou shalt induce no perplexity
the average television viewer could retain only 20 percent of the information contained in a fictional televised news story.
21 percent of television viewers could not recall any news items within one hour of broadcast.
What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.
that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium. How is such media consciousness to be achieved?
we are in a race between education and disaster,
necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media.