Amusing Ourselves Out of Our Manhood

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 1, 2009 · 119 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

“How television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command. In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches, and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” -Neil Postman

In Neil Postman’s influential book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he explored the impact “of the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.” Postman convincingly argued that the medium greatly influences the message, that certain means of communication can only deliver certain content, and that the style, format, and delivery of that content greatly shapes our culture.

It’s not something we take stock of very often, if at all, but our language and our communication tools shape the way we think about the world. A Russian will never see the world exactly the way a American will, because they have different words to describe it. And a culture that uses smoke signals to communicate will never see the world the same as those who use cell phones. Postman argued:

“Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.”

Postman’s book was written in 1982 and since then our modes of communication have taken a huge leap forward. For many people these days, their primary form of communication, entertainment, and information gathering occurs on the internet. Postman lamented that in his time, no one was paying sufficient attention to the way that new technology was changing our social and intellectual culture. Certainly that is as true as ever. We talk a lot about this new information age, but we don’t spend too much time pondering how it’s changing our lives.

People have lamented changes in our means of communication ever since we shifted from an oral culture to a written culture. Each new change brings cries that the new medium will bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Yet in time we generally come to see that each leap forward in technology brings with it both pros and cons, sometimes leaving the balance sheet in the black, sometimes in the red.

And so it is with the internet. It is a powerful good. Far more good than bad I would argue. It has given the average person access to more information than at any time in world history. With a few keystrokes I can learn about the Battle of Thebes or watch a lecture from a world renowned professor. We can communicate instantly with friends and family. The world is our oyster.

But no medium is an unmitigated good. The internet is changing the way we learn and communicate, in some ways for the worse. The internet can be used as an effective tool in our lives, or we can fall into the following traps and allow ourselves to be amused right out of our manhood.

The Atrophying of Attention Span

Our brethren in the 19th century thought spending 7 hours listening to the Lincoln-Douglas debates was a delightful way to spend the day. They were willing to sit and soak in 7 hours of heavy political philosophy and policy, without being able to check their Blackberries a single time. That kind of singular rapture is inconceivable now. Instead, we live in what Postman called a “peek-a-boo” world where we constantly expect and demand new things to pop up and surprise and entertain us.

Postman said the phrase, “now…this” was one of the scariest phrases in our language. He was referring to the way the phrase allows newscasters to jump between two completely unrelated stories, as in “A terrible earthquake killed 10,000 people today in Taiwan. Now…this. A koala bear was born at the zoo!”

Postman said:

“The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously.” Each story is “separated in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it….viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or feeling from one parcel of time to another.”

News shows are put together to appeal to our impatience-each story runs a minute or less before the anchor “now this-es” us into the next story. This quick flitting from one thing to another did a doozy on our attentions spans when the newscasters were solely in control of the “now..this.” Now we are in control, able to surf from one story and from one website to another is mere seconds. If something does not grab us immediately, it’s off to something else. We don’t even watch whole shows anymore; instead of watching Saturday Night Live, we watch the best clips of it online; instead of watching the news, we watch clips of the news as satirized in clips from The Daily Show.

“While brevity does not always suggest triviality, in this case it clearly does. It is simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute’s time.”

Internet readers thus demand bite-sized, easily digestible information. It has become blogging gospel that posts should be no longer than a paragraph or two. We made a conscious decision when we started the Art of Manliness to buck this trend, figuring that along with the other things we’d try to bring back from the past, we ought to include the attention span. After all, if a topic is important enough to write about then it should be important enough to do well, and to cover comprehensively.

The Narrowing of Man’s Worldview

Whenever we have a controversial post here on AoM, I’m always dismayed by one kind of comment: the person that announces that because they disagree with or don’t like the article, they are unsubscribing from site. Now I’m not dismayed by these kinds of comments because I’m worried about the fate of AoM; the site is doing just fine. No, I find these kinds of comments alarming because of how indicative they are of a more general and wholly disappointing cultural trend. They vividly reveal the way in which many men in today’s society truly believe that the world revolves around them.

Unsubscribing from a blog because you disagree with a single article absolutely befuddles me. In what universe could any publication whether it be a blog, newspaper, magazine, or television show possibly produce daily content that exactly aligns with one’s own interests? And the more important question is, why would you want it to?

During the early days of the internet, the web was heralded as a new kind of forum, a place where the free exchange of ideas would be unrestricted and people could interact and engage with all sorts of opinions and views. Unfortunately, what has happened is that the internet has instead been used to form narrower and narrower communities, smaller and smaller niches of like-minded individuals who enjoy having their preconceived notions confirmed and their egos stroked.

Such an approach to life would leave our forbearers rolling over in their graves. Whether in the French salons or the American juntos, men of old actively sought out the opinions of those who disagreed with them and used these interactions to have a spirited but respectful debate about the issues. Traveling lectures were some of the most popular sources of entertainment, and a speaker would be allowed 3 hours to make his case. Another speaker would then be given the same amount of time to give a rebuttal. People did not leave after the speaker with which they agreed had finished; they equally relished hearing the counterargument. They understood that the intellect is not built simply with the things we are already preconceived to like, and that that which infuriates us can be just as good, sometimes even  better, for the mind.

The Trivialization of Information

“For telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee…it destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden that ‘We are in a great haste to construct 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.’ Thoreau, as it turned out, was precisely correct. He grasped that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse…The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. These demons of discourse were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity.” -Postman

Postman argued that the medium of television was inadequate for serious, rational communication. He did not believe it was impossible, simply that the medium was not conducive to it. Television’s highest priority is to win viewers, and the easiest way to this is to appeal to short attention spans with entertaining fluff. The priority had to be on entertainment, not education.

The internet has only accelerated this trend. Every site is in competition for clicks, and has quickly discovered that “New photos of Megan Fox!” gets many more clicks than “Bomb Explosion in Iraq.” Further, knowing that the reader is antsy and will quickly move from one thing to another, leads websites to post only the briefest outlines of a story. When there is so much choice available, each site must make themselves attractive by offering the shortest, fluffiest content possible. The result is a sea of trivial information, each bit disconnected from the other and lacking context. What Postman said of the telegraph equally applies to the internet:

“Telegraphy also made public discourse essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention…The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it.”

The result of the trivial, fragmentary information on the internet is that depth of knowledge has been exchanged for breadth of knowledge. We know every detail of the recent Tiger Woods drama, we know what our friend Mike had for breakfast and why Jane’s having a bad day, but how many of us know and understand the details of Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan? And so that is how we communicate off-line as well. Instead of trading viewpoints on health care with our friends, we show each other the latest clips from Family Guy and keyboard cat.

Conclusion

I’m no Luddite (it would be hard to pull off being one and being a blogger). And I love the internet. It allowed a guy like me to start a new men’s magazine with virtually no start up costs, just some ideas and elbow grease. I love how easy it is to find out anything I want to know about any subject. And I love being able to connect to people around the world. I simply think that like every tool, the internet must be used with care. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment at all, and everybody needs a little Christian side hug in their day. And we here at AoM like to do posts that are just for fun sometimes too. It’s simply a matter of balance and moderation. A man must be careful to avoid gorging on a diet of strictly fluff. Not only does it starve the mind and spirit, but it colors our off-line lives as well. We want everything immediately and easily. We want the world and the people in it to align with our interests. We are unable to focus on things that can’t be surfed away from. When we fill ours lives with the merely trivial, we can neglect the things that really matter, the values and relationships that challenge us and cannot be attained with a click of the mouse.

“What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well…For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”

Source: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment box.

{ 119 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Gabe December 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Thank you

102 LameBill December 5, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Thank you.

I’m going to have to think about this for a while.

103 sam December 5, 2009 at 4:51 pm

First of all, what does any of this have to do with ‘manliness’? This seems like a petty complaint against something that has done an incalculable amount of good. For the record LOTS and LOTS of people are studying the implications of modern technology in our lives, this alarmist style journalism is a little beneath us. The other half of this article just seems like a defensive response to someone deciding to unsubscribe, if I don’t like something I don’t waste my time reading it. That has nothing to do with whether or no I’m willing to hear someone elses point of view..of course I want to know all other point of views. I may just not want to subscribe to a mediocre blog..

104 PastorEd December 6, 2009 at 12:44 am

Good article. A bit more substantive than

“Real Men THINK”.

(although that’s quite true as well. I think the Manliness concept is this: be careful what you put in your head, and how you train yourself to respond to stimuli…)

105 Rawsee December 6, 2009 at 3:25 am

Wow,

I’ve been a lurker on this site for quite a while now. Hell, it’s been my homepage for approximately three months. But tonight, I have to commend you on a well-written post. This was the most insightful piece I have read in a while. And judging by the content of this site,t is saying alot.

Keep up them coming

106 Noufal Ibrahim December 7, 2009 at 11:24 am

It’s instructive if you’re spending a *lot* of time on the net (especially on sites like Youtube and social networks) to completely unplug. Absolutely no internet for a week or so. I had this forced on me recently by a computer outage and it was educational, at the very least, to see what I was missing out on even in my own fast paced city lifestyle.

107 Jordan Hill December 7, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Points for Brave New World reference!

108 peter December 8, 2009 at 11:38 am

@ Sam
You bring up some interesting points. First of all communication is the foundation for society and as such for manliness. I think was Brett is trying to say is that because men are having shorter and shorter attention spans, and reading more and more fluff, we do not have time to focus on the important things such as character development and forming good habits.
Secondly, Brett was not attacking the internet, he was simply giving an honest view. No one can argue that no good has come from the internet, but at the same time, a lot of problems have arisen from it. I think Brett was simply posing the question, do the benefits resulting from the internet outweigh the harms?
Thirdly, I applaud that you are open to opposing opinions. It seems that fewer and fewer men engage in intellectual discussion on controversial subjects.

109 webdiva December 8, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Well, the author sure doesn’t speak for me, but I’m in the literate minority and a woman anyway. I’m a technophile, but I don’t get what i don’t need or can’t use, and I don’t bother with a lot of communications substitutes like social networking (now there’s a bloodyminded euphemism for time wasting). I don’t do Twitter or anything like it, I had to be dragged into Facebook to keep up with one area of interest and don’t bother with it more than once a week, and my presence on LinkedIn (supposedly for professional reasons) has yielded absolutely no benefit in more than a year. But then I always refused to carry a pager, have been known to turn off my cell during meetings, dinner and concerts, and still don’t think one should be reachable everywhere at all times. You want leisure time or time for focus, learning or intimacy? Turn off the phone and ignore your laptop; that’s what e-mail and voicemail are for. And most people really *don’t* need to check those more than twice a day, and even then only on workdays.

I don’t disagree with much of this article, except that this phenomenon of a preference for mindlessness has been going on for some time; perhaps TV, video games and the Internet have merely made this trend more obvious than before. And since when has the average person actually enjoyed thinking in any substantial way? Hasn’t that always been the province and pastime of the literate (as in well read, not merely able to read) minority? Besides, there’s been a nasty streak of anti-intellectualism prevalent in the American public just about since the Founding Fathers died — they were the intellectual children of the Enlightenment, but even when they lived, the general public was not similarly inclined. And the well educated have often been viewed by the general public with suspicion and resentment, at least in the U.S., more so now in contemporary public schools. How old is the term ‘egghead’, anyway? Too long, and it’s still in use. We only get concerned about the abuse of the smart kids when they end up dead.

The trend to fragmented focus and shorter attention spans may be accelerating now, which spells disaster for public discourse. It’s just too easy to narrow one’s choices of reading or viewing material, what with all the information sources tat are willing to position themselves for ‘niche’ audiences, and fewer people seem to be reading non-work-or-sports-related nonfiction for pleasure. Where is the common discourse that gave us at least a general sense of shared community? We used to get it from reading the daily newspaper or watching the 6 o’clock evening news, but we all know how *that’s* deteriorated. Those who don’t bother to read, or don’t read anything other than fiction and/or work- or sport-related material, have themselves to blame, but we all pay the price in that a non-reading, unthinking public makes for a lousy, ill-informed citizenry. Worse, that public seems singularly unconcerned about the decay of the press that it relies upon for its critical information, in that it won’t support, for the most part, that part of the media that still does a halfway decent job at reporting the news (if it did, the news media wouldn’t be going broke).

A willingness to take shortcuts at communication on a regular basis leads to sloppy thinking. A confession that one was ‘never that good at English’ (or math) is an admission that one was never that good at organized thought — something that should be seen as highly embarrassing instead of used as a cheap ploy for sympathy. Yet who challenges that (besides me, that is, and I get strange looks when I do)? One might argue that the general public — and our children — have the wrong civic values, for which we can also blame ourselves given every time we didn’t challenge mindlessness when we encountered it.

Texting is *not* writing, nor does it typically consist of much that is worth reading, let alone retaining, yet people spend way too much time on that and cut back on direct, face-to-face conversation. What you have instead of conversation is an exchange of monologues that doesn’t really require much rigorous thinking — not that most people seem comfortable with the concept anyway. I don’t know what can be done to change that, short of starting anew with the next generation in the schools — but this presupposes that teachers and school systems are capable of teaching rigorous critical thinking and are willing to do it (highly doubtful in many cases, and out of the question for those that are still rabid about not teaching evolution). I wince when I think about the number of barely literate primary and secondary school teachers I’ve encountered over the last two or three decades.

Somebody needs to say that mindlessness is not okay, particularly when it’s the rule and not just an occasional diversion, to say that video games have no good purpose, other than possibly improving hand-eye coordination for fighter pilots, and ought to be limited for children to no more than an hour or two per week — ditto TV watching — as opposed to 10 or more hours per week of reading. But who will do that — the parents who give in to their kids by letting said kids have their own TVs, computers, iPods and phones?? Awww, hell no, not bloody likely. That leaves only well read, well educated curmudgeons and iconoclasts like me who write for a living. You can’t legislate weak, permissive parenting out of existence; you can only try to persuade and hope that the parents don’t give in the next time some kid threatens a tantrum.

Good luck with that. If you’ve got a better idea, I’m waiting to hear it.

110 peter December 8, 2009 at 5:07 pm

@webdiva
WOW! that was a fantastic monologue if i have ever heard one. It reminded me of a modern day St. Crispin’s day speech. I am with you completely.
P.S. Love the diction.

111 Sir Lancelot December 9, 2009 at 10:38 am

“A confession that one was ‘never that good at English’ (or math) is an admission that one was never that good at organized thought — something that should be seen as highly embarrassing instead of used as a cheap ploy for sympathy. ”

Bravo! I wish i had a cent for every time I’ve heard a university graduate try to justify their lousy spelling and grammar with “I’m more of a science type”. Ah, that’s OK then – it’s perfectly acceptable to write a thesis on quantum physics using iliterate grammar and textspeak spelling…

112 Sir Lancelot December 9, 2009 at 10:39 am

Oops! By “iliterate” I meant “illiterate”!

113 Brian December 10, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Thank you.

I recently read Brave New World and have not stopped thinking about it since. Thank you for putting words to my thoughts to solidify my ideas.

114 C December 16, 2009 at 5:20 am

This,is the only website I have found for men that doesn’t talk about completely superficial topic. Bravo!

115 Arseniy B December 17, 2009 at 1:37 am

I didn’t bother reading this article because I already agreed with the writters point of view. Sometime we already know what something is about before we read it.

Many people want to reinforce their own beliefs. Let them.
Real men work on themselves and always rise above. Strive to be the better man.
The one who doesn’t complain. The patient and ready man who chooses his battles wisely. More men need to stop acting like men and actually become the men that they are. Hence having a life that is bigger than petty internet debate.

116 robert Chapman December 20, 2009 at 11:13 pm

I remember back in the seventies when Marshall McLuhan was ridiculed and lampooned for his book, The Media is the Message, in which he postulated the theory that the medium from which one garners information decisively affects ones mental image and processing of the information.

Now Christians are emailing each other and exchanging mass messages on the pertinacity and validity of McLuhan’s message. There is hope, maybe the day will come when Christians are also able to accept evolution and biology,

117 T.B. January 25, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Marshall McLuhan’s “Playboy” interview is a great introduction to his thought. Available now on the Internet, I’m sure, but in the 1980s I had to go to an X-rated store of sorts and dig through the stacks of dusty magazines. I thought I was back at my friend’s brother’s room in 1969. . .

118 Mark March 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm

I used to subscribe to several off-road magazines. At some point in the early 2000s the features and event stories began to significantly reduce the ink used for print and putting more captions on bigger and brighter photographs. I guess it was just too hard to read a story about a Jeep without fifty pictures and an equal number of smart “a” captions.

119 Parker December 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm

“Whether in the French salons or the American juntos, men of old actively sought out the opinions of those who disagreed with them”

-A great point, and yet it is important to remember that the men of those Salons went on to create a totalitarian regime, otherwise known as the Reign of Terror, where if you didn’t agree with the revolutionary status quo, then it was off with your head. Today, it’s easy to look around and believe that old values are coming apart. The truth is, we’ve been dealing with these problems throughout all of history. We need to remember that when we analyze our own society.

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