Our Dystopian Media Ecology
I have been thinking more and more recently, as we slide along in this unbelievable, screwy political environment of Trump populism: How did we get to this place?
How did we manage to get ourselves into this mess?
It Happened So Slowly We Just Didn’t Notice
I just don’t buy the automatic finger pointing at someone else . . . anyone else . . , as that is exactly what we usually do. We, as tribal beings, are inclined to be judgmental advocates of our tribe’s point of view, and to point at the THEMs in the room as being the culprits of whatever the issue is in front of us. In other words we focus on “our” story, our explanation, of what happened: we have different content about this circumstance we are in as a nation.
But I am going to argue that the problem is actually several layers down from our different value systems (our content). I’m going to argue that we (and they) are all arguing about issues in an information and communication environment that has changed around us that we do not seem to understand the ramifications of, and that this new environment plays to those non-cognitive (non knowledge-based) reactions –to those, instead, emotional reactions that keep us hooked on remaining in that environment.
You see, rational and empirical intake of information is not the throughput of the new communications environment we life in today; emotional satisfaction and emotional titillation is what we are given by our new communications environment (and the technology that facilitates it).
As phrased by one of the communications scholars I will be examining here in this post, we have allowed our country’s communications and social networking industries to create–and our federal government to enable–a ubiquitous profit-making mass technology (like television and Internet-related technologies) that purposefully and publicly sell their audiences “happy talk” amusement and emotional experiences, although the same industry also gives its audiences supposedly more cognitive, or even informative, news services.
But as I will point out, the technology industry that organizes the delivery of all of the content through this new environment of electronic mediation is also using the same “happy talk” features of some programs it sells as entertainment to define the environment that it advertises as “informative” content. And one of the scholars I intend to focus on in this post has famously called out this “feature” as the environment of television as being the characteristic of it that turns its audiences into human beings who are “amusing ourselves to death.”
Understanding Media and Understanding Media Ecology
The current nature of television and social mediation as THE public forum that most Americans actually use to alert themselves to what is going on in the country is what got me to thinking about what academics knew about, first, the medium of television.
The scholars at the top of that short list are these two main bomb throwers:
- The opaque English professor and media prophet, Marshall McLuhen, the scholar of the process of personality amplification via the media, and
- the curmudgeonly professor of media, Neil Postman.
They both had pointed out in the middle and late 20th century how terribly, terribly wrong things had developed for our new, latest form of electronic mass communication: television.
There was another scholar, Daniel Boorstin, who book about celebrity, was also there, in interesting example of how our new mass media culture got misused by narcissistic personalities. But the most importance screwups with our changing culture were pointed out by the dystopic ramifications of the ideas of McLuhan and Postman:
Marshal McLuhan (1911-1980)
“We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish”
McLuhen started the ball rolling on defining the problems associated with our new electronic mass media (radio, and especially television) by pointing out that the effects of the communications media, independent of their content, were what was important to understand.
As far back as the early 1960’s, McLuhan (in his Gutenberg Galaxy) was focusing us in on how communications technology–from alphabetic writing, the printing press, and finally, the electronic media– affects cognitive organization, which he thought, in turn, impacted social organization. Watching television wasn’t something we did; it was forcing us into we were unknowingly becoming.
Neil Postman (1931-2003)
“Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favor of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment”
Neil Postman was a media scholar who appreciated the importance of–and the uses of–the ordered, sequential logic of the world of print; and who understood the orality of rhetoric, of discussion, dialogue and deliberation. So he found television’s handling of what was being advertised as serious policy talk and politics as nothing more than sham goods sold with show biz glitter and glitz.
Postman, like McLuhen, distinguished between the media environment and the content it carried, noting that . . .
a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Thus rational argument, integral to print typography, is militated against by the medium of television for this reason. Owing to this shortcoming, politics and religion are diluted, and “news of the day” becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favor of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate.
Postman asserts television news is a form of entertainment programming; arguing that the inclusion of theme music, the interruption of commercials, and “talking hairdos” bear witness that televised news cannot readily be taken seriously. Postman further examines the differences between written speech, which he argues reached its prime in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and the forms of visual communication, which rely mostly on visual images to “sell” lifestyles. He argues that, owing to this change in public discourse, politics has ceased to be about a candidate’s ideas and solutions, but whether he comes across favorably on television. Television, he notes, has introduced the phrase “now this”, which implies a complete absence of connection between the separate topics the phrase ostensibly connects.
(from the Wikipedia article “Amusing Ourselves to Death“)
As a college professor with instructional responsibilities, I found the work of these two scholars saying essentially the same thing to me about my craft when I read them:
You must think carefully about what you are trying to sell (or instruct), remembering that the medium you choose to use the sell your product (the content) will be transformed with additional messages you probably had no idea it was about, and probably would not have intended.
But the almost unnoticed enveloping of our minds and cognitive beings into a silent, transparent and faux reality of today had just begun to take place in the 1960’s.
Today, looking back on those starting days in the 60’s, we have managed to become the frog in a pan of water, slowing being boiled by the rising temperature of the wet environment we still don’t notice that we are in.
In fact, I DID find something–a new track of academic study, called Media Ecology— that held promise to become the discipline that might be counted on to fully explicate and describe the invisible environment we fail to actually pay attention to.
I discovered this subject area by going back to the work of Postman, now a personal intellectual hero of mine, on topics about the environment of mediation we began to live in during the age of television.
Starting with the Wikipedia article about his book about television (Wikipedia article “Amusing Ourselves to Death“), I noticed that Postman in his later years started to advocate for the study of what had been named media ecology . . .
Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival.
The word ecology implies the study of environments: their structure, content, and impact on people. An environment is, after all, a complex message system which imposes on human beings certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It structures what we can see and say and, therefore, do. It assigns roles to us and insists on our playing them. It specifies what we are permitted to do and what we are not.
Sometimes, as in the case of a courtroom, or classroom, or business office, the specifications are explicit and formal. In the case of media environments (e.g., books, radio, film, television, etc.), the specifications are more often implicit and informal, half concealed by our assumption that what we are dealing with is not an environment but merely a machine.
Media ecology tries to make these specifications explicit. It tries to find out what roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do.
Media ecology is the study of media as environments.
–from What is Media Ecology, Media Ecology Association (web page)
Through such reading I happened upon the fact that a former graduate student of Postman (Lance Strate) had actually written an extension of Postman’s summarizing thoughts about the country’s fixation with electronic mediation. That book is this:
Lance Strate, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited, Peter Lang Publishing, Feb, 2014.
So Strate used his book about Postman’s Amazing Ourselves to Death to extend Postman’s unfinished final conclusions about the media environment to today’s (contemporary), even more complex technological environment, that extends to such things as personal, around-the-clock Internet accessibility, and the web and social media. Clearly a homage to Postman, the book is a thoughtful analysis and critique of the 21st century media environment that Postman did not live to see.
A helpful summary of Media Ecology is given in this 7 minute YouTube video, an introduction to what media ecology is through the thoughts of both McLuhen and Postman:
Media Ecology: A Brief Overview (YouTube 7:29)
I think both scholars made the point in other words, but they were talking about the same process.
Some of us in the America academy were lucky enough to have been exposed to McLuhen and Postman, who both taught us to actually see our lives and this world we live in through the special perspective of being outside of the pan of water we call our everyday culture.
We were taught that we too could take off the suit of our culture from time to time so as to allow ourselves to actually notice the difference between our daily lives inside of the invisible culture we live in, versus the weekends or vacations that we spend purposefully OUTSIDE of that invisible culture.