“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!”
“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.
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.”
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment box.
Last updated: November 20, 2015