Technics and Civilization

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The Germ Has Spread: How America Elected a Reality Show President

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Back in June, an article titled “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win” (penned by Michael Moore) showed up on my news feed and, because I was tracking the election rather closely, I read it. I then read it again. After the third time, I shared the article around and asked for people’s’ opinions. While this article and his subsequent rounds on talk shows have made Moore one of the many prominent figures that will be forever tied to Donald Trump’s unlikely run to the White House, there is one person who has him beat by roughly 30 years. When Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business back in 1986, he set his sights on what he saw was a change in the way society was being swayed by the spectacle of the visual message in media. Unfortunately, even he could not foresee how his look into the harmful influence of television and media overexposure was completely foreshadowing the rise of Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, and our first “Reality Show President.”

It is necessary, before we juxtapose the Trump candidacy to Postman’s work, that we fully understand a few of the theories posed in Amusing Ourselves to Death. To rationalize his theory, Postman quotes the philosopher Lewis Mumford who, in his book Technic and Civilization, deconstructs our society’s propensity to become addicts of information. For this, Mumford uses the invention of the clock as an example. He believed that when we created this tool to measure increments of time, we effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.” In other words, we created a tool to measure time, and in doing so, produced a new form of currency that would come to shape our society — we crafted the golden calf and then worshipped at its feet.

Looking at our current relationship with media and what constitutes news in this day and age reveals that we have learned nothing from creating false idols. News and information are now produced in cycles, with hundreds if not thousands of people working to create content for every second of battery life on your cellphone. Postman, writing long before the smart phone, would trace our poisoned, ever-flowing information stream to our fascination with celebrity. He begins Amusing Ourselves to Death by claiming that our society’s unhealthy attraction to polarizing characters in media is reminiscent of the brilliance and spectacle of a city like Las Vegas:
Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into into congenial adjunct of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.
While it stands as a perfect representation of the times, and likewise a great visual, the analogy of Vegas seems almost pedestrian now. Postman was writing in the age before the reality star; a time when MTV was just a channel dedicated to music, and outlandish public spectacle did not equate ratings. Popular TV shows at the time included The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Family Ties — shows that served as reflections of what we told ourselves were American values. Conflict was only just beginning to seep into our TV sets, mostly through trashy talk shows hosted by the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Richard Bey.

While Postman looked to television as the source of our media addiction, the Internet age has amplified this by orders of magnitude. Retweet, Repost, Tag, and Repeat have become embedded into our everyday mantras along with brush your teeth and wash your hands. According to studies like one carried out by ZenithOptMedia, Americans consume almost eight hours of media per day, with that number steadily rising. Postman’s world became reliant on the effectiveness and speed of the televised message; we have grown into a society that gets bombarded by thousands of different messages each day. This has become so ingrained into our society, and we have become so numb to rolling this boulder up the steep precipice, that we have now slipped into a practice of relying on information that is served in small, bite-sized portions in order to consume more. I myself found Amusing Ourselves to Death only after reading the small blurb posted by a friend and clicking a link. Information served to us in this buffet format forces us to be selective. We can’t process everything, so instead we fall for “clickbait” articles, hashtags, and buzzwords. We have become a society hooked on riskier avenues of information, with riskier personalities at the helm.

I always take whatever Moore produces with a grain of salt, but I took notice of his open letter to America in which he detailed why Trump was destined to win in November. Moore likened the American public to a person who, looking at the spectacle of Niagara Falls, “wonders for a moment what it would feel like to go over that thing.” Trump was too much of a magnet, too much of a spectacle, for us to ignore. His supporters, people so dissatisfied with the effectiveness of their government, boldly chose to brave the roaring falls of a Trump presidency. To his opponents, Trump still served as a form of amusement. Both camps were fueled by entertainment we were fed by the sometimes ludicrous missteps of the media.

It’s saying a lot about us when we come to fully accept the deceptive candidate propaganda and attack ads that are built into our political climate. It’s saying even more when any candidate who attempts to take the “high road” and stick to the issues does so at the risk of coming off as human (just ask John Kasich). While some of us groaned and complained about “dirty politics” and the lack of civilized discourse, we also tuned into the presidential debates in droves to see what horrible thing Trump would say next. It became less about policies and more about quotable insults to post and share. As a result, the movement to get Donald Trump elected was fought on two fronts: one of image and one of misinformation. While Trump the candidate scowled into the camera and provided the entertainment value without any actual credible evidence for his claims, others worked to circulate false information online. While this is par for the course in politics, for this election, it proved to be highly effective in reinforcing the Trump base. According to a Florida PPP poll held in October, while 84 percent of Trump supporters believed that Hillary Clinton should have been imprisoned, another 40 percent legitimately claimed to believe that she was an actual living demon. Even to this day, months after Trump’s Inauguration Day speech, there are many fanatics who believe the toxic message spread throughout the campaigns.

Postman writes, “American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display.” During Trump’s run, the media produced several pieces of damning evidence to discredit him. Like the showman that he is, Trump turned the blame back onto the media, describing them as corrupt and “crooked.” In short, when Trump undermined the validity of the mainstream media, he effectively gave agency to fringe news outlets. Maybe during Postman’s time these outliers spreading fanatical misinformation would be nothing more than people handing pamphlets out in subways or having their hateful propaganda relegated to hard-to-find shows on the radio dial. But during our election, the Internet allowed for the sharing and re-sharing of this misinformation. And by the time anyone was ready to strike these claims down, it was 1,000 to 2,000 shares too late — the germ had spread.

Trump rolled through the entire process speaking (and tweeting) whatever he wanted to, knowing full well that, as Postman describes, “It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”

Trump dominated his own message throughout his run — seemingly alienating women, immigrants, and the Black and Latino vote. But just like a train-wreck of a reality show, he was only rewarded for behaving badly. According to The New York Times, although he ranked the lowest in actual spending on advertising during his run, Trump received close to $2 billion in free publicity by news outlets and social media — yes, the same media he was condemning. As described in this article, the significance of “earned media” (as it’s called) “typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign. The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate — maybe than any candidate ever — at earning media.” This, coupled with Trump’s continued mastery of 140 characters to manipulate both his supporters and detractors into keeping his messages in circulation, led to a fundamental change in how we have attached truth to “celebrity” in this country.

By the time Election Day came, the Democratic Party (and eventually the media) had wasted all of their efforts trying to prove that he was unfit for presidency when in actuality, to his supporters, he became legitimized the more popular culture rejected him.  The Left, after finally deciding to take him seriously, tried to attack the man’s character without acknowledging that he was a character. That he was a product of a society that has been groomed, through the popularity of reality television, to reward people whose sole motivation is to rock the boat, even at the detriment of those who can’t swim.

In validating our reality show president, we may have just incited the absolute worst product of any reality show — the spinoffs. In electing Trump based on nothing but his celebrity status alone, this has allowed for the emergence of toxic figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon to be featured on our TV screens.

But Postman didn’t just warn us against the popularization of polarizing figures. In its most telling chapter, entitled “And Now … This,” Postman explains the start of the Reagan era, citing details eerily similar to those we have seen in our 45th President, more than years later. He writes, “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general.” Substitute their names in this quote and maybe Trump’s insistence to evoke similarities between himself and Reagan are worth some merit.

What may provide the most revealing mirror of our current culture is what Postman writes about the quality of information circulating at the time. While Reagan was providing dubious claims on specific events throughout the world, the media was faltering in its attempt at properly providing a filter for its audience. He states:
What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.
In just this small section, Postman sums up what our news outlets and mainstream media sources have been up against in Trump’s first 30 days in office. In that time, I have yet to find a better definition for what we are now calling “fake news” and “alternative facts” than the one Postman outlines in this chapter.

Postman warns that during the Reagan presidency, this all led to an oversaturation and overexertion by the press and the people who avidly follow politics. Reagan’s “disinformation” eventually became so common that the news outlets and citizen’s seemed to care less about its validity. In other words, they had reached a threshold for the amount of “disinformation” the public could absorb before the abnormal became the norm, regardless of how many articles reporters produced. In other words, while the press continued its stand on fact-checking the president, the audience (the American public) became complacent in the face of the constant bombardment.

This leads to a section of Postman’s which should be outlined and sent to anyone who is already beginning to feel “Trump fatigue.” Our president and his mouthpieces are attempting to use the same tactics Reagan and his administration used to handle things such as White House leaks and unflattering press. As a result, the usual way to engage in critiquing our current presidency is doomed to fail. Simply pointing out inconsistencies and outright fabrications will not be enough to win out in the end. To understand this better, Postman does a fantastic job at describing the two schools of discourse at play here. Explaining his own upbringing, he calls his approach “typographic discourse” which is a linear way of disseminating fact from fiction. To Postman, an essay written by one of his students cannot contain a paragraph with one view posed as “true” and then be directly followed an opposing viewpoint that is then also posed as a truth. Postman writes, “The difference between us is that I assume…one paragraph and the next to be connected, to be continuous, to be part of the same coherent world of thought. That is the way of typographic discourse, and typography is the universe I’m ‘coming from.’” He then explains that the new form of discourse — one that we are facing right now during this presidency — is fragmented discourse, which he describes as “The fundamental assumption that the world is not coherence but discontinuity. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.” Trump’s uncanny ability to brush aside full-blown media pieces about his numerous inconsistencies and contradictions proves that this is a coordinated effort to use fractured discourse to demoralize opposing voices.

There are differences between the world we live in and the one Postman is outlining in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman wrote that while the Reagan administration was tactfully adjusting the the quality of information coursing through the country to best suit its needs, it wasn’t actively trying to bend the mainstream media to its whim. He explains, “The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associated Press is not Tass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.” Aside from the Russian propaganda parallels (which today pick up a whole new meaning), many people wonder whether Trump is in fact trying to do that very thing. His war against the media — going as far to name The New York Times, WaPo, and the AP by name as detriments to society (“enemy of the American People!”) is, for many, a move to control or outright silence media who print dissent. And, many could say, the “lies defined as truth and truth defined as lies” has been part of the Trump mainstay since he announced his candidacy.

For those who did not vote for Trump, it may be assuring to know that Neil Postman survived two terms of the Reagan Presidency. Does Postman offer any advice on avoiding electing another reality show president?  While he admits that he lacks the competence to find a “cure” for America’s addiction to spectacle, he does offer a few ideas. Most notably, Postman believes we should curb the amount of time spent within the media loop to avoid oversaturation. A second, more humorous, piece of advice would be to “require all political commercials to be preceded by a short statement to the effect that common sense has determined that watching political commercials is hazardous to the intellectual health of the community.”

For now, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is a must-read in the Trump era, both for the public and those covering this presidency — a resource for those of us who aren’t here for the spectacle.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

A Year in Reading: Mark O’Connell


Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t — but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.)

But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned — always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning — for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness — a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness — and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading — and abandoning.)

Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand — I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book — but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity — at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed.

I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She’s inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way — both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers.

Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single — and, crucially, female — late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed.

I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so — a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. “Before inventors created engines to take the place of men,” he writes,
the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx — these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age.
An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it.

The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 — or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction — who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders…Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen — really for the first time in any kind of serious way — to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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