Neil Postman‘s “Amusing ourselves to death” poses a fundamental question: Does a medium itself influence its contents? In his emphatic “Yes” to that question Postman juxtaposes two different “media worlds”: the typographical one of newspapers and books against the pictorial one of television. In his opinion the slow linear progression of textual media forces a different way of consuming than the moving images; they need a longer attention span, presuppose certain common knowledge among those participating in the discourse and always aim to form a coherent whole of text. Television “culture” on the contrary merely plunges the viewer into a frenzy of ever new stimuli without any sense. In the end creating our fragmented ADHD brains.
This is the third attempt to gather my thoughts on Postman‘s pamphlet, but maybe my grey matter is already too pixelated to ever finish it.
1. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of media critique
In the wider perspective there are many similar approaches like Postman‘s. For example in Wallraff’s critique of the infamous Bildzeitung, in which he paints very much alike a medium that alters and distorts every of its contents. In a more fundamental sense Sapir and Whorf postulated that even the grammar of our language presupposes certain traits of our world view. Even though the scientific truth of this hypothesis to my knowledge is still in debate it was devastatingly popularized just like Gödel’s theorems. So now it’s all over town, mostly with the wrong reference to the Eskimo’s hundred different words for snow. In the most far reaching this line of thinking may be expressed in the dictum that there is no right life in the false (Adorno). Therein “medium” is widened to the “systemic, capitalistic life circumstances” that distort and wrong every existential expression we could search for.
These theses attract also me, but at the same moment doubt sprouts. Maybe it’s not always so easy to tell “right” and “false” media apart? How are people always so sure? Isn’t this often just solidifying one’s own habits and preconceptions labeling it as truth?
If we exaggerate this spurious correlation between media and content, wouldn’t we arrive at the historical absurdities of those scientists that believed from the shape of a head or brain they could deduce what kind of thoughts are lingering inside. We now laugh at those early phrenologists, but even those old theories that assign certain temperaments to constitutional types are still around. (And even if modern brain imaging techniques are pretty advanced scientific reasoning about the results is still not free of similarly stupid short-circuiting of their p-hacked results.)
So is this deterministic link we tend to establish between medium or form and its content, even something like a thought trap? Something we and media critics like to fall into, because it relieves us from looking at the contents if we can already dismiss something coming from the wrong source.
2. The decontextualized nation
Who cannot account
for three thousand years,
will stay verdant in the dark,
may live from day to day.
J. W. Goethe
Postman spends big part of his critique portraying the forefather’s nation as literate throughout where literally even the farmer’s child followed the plow with a book in his hand. He ascribes the political success of the USA to the rational discourse fostered so long until corroded by the entertainment of electronic visual media, where only the politician’s telegenic appeal counts.
He puts a lot of effort in this idolized image, but I think it is worthwhile to highlight the success story just from the opposite site. To this end I will employ Postman‘s fighting term of ‘decontextualization’. According to Postman one of the main evils of television, because its atomistic clips only stand for themselves devoid of any larger context and meaning. Textual expression on the other hand forces to do a proper exposition.
This may not may seem true on the surface: But actually “decontextualization” is king. Even textual language needs to do a similar thing if it is to represent acoustic words and sounds which would otherwise be accompanied by attitude, mimic, gesture, accentuation of the speaker by abstract symbols. You cannot account for that with stage direction. In that sense image and acoustic media supply a much richer context, such that misunderstandings that we see so often in textual like on the web or chats are less likely to occur. For culture this is a great strength as it consists of written testimony, material that is taken from its original soil and replanted into new ages and societies that interpret it differently.
Similarly for me one of the striking causes for the strength of the United States of America is their young history and lack of context. It is liberating. And it was what many people hoped for in the New World: a fresh new start. The myth of “Going West” is also an reenactment of that promised clean slate. It is deeply ingrained into the Nation’s spirit, whereas we Europeans are drowned by the ballast of “deep and rich” history and tradition. Heavy like that we can barely follow all the new technology.
The youth of US’ history has another great advantage: you can still smell their fabricated nature. When I stood at the gift shops at liberty bell it all seemed so fake. May well be it’s some European reflex if you visit the country of consumerist terror made of plastic and sugar, but I mean to apply in the other direction as well: that some European history is faraway and passed on for centuries should not make us believe it more! The Vatican, pretzels and the European gift shops are just as fake.
Our whole culture of paper and word is equally fake and artificial. Only through hundred years of indoctrination it has become habitual. If we would looked at us from far and would see this strange animal that instead of hunting done some food, bends over strange symbols and texts to search deeper meanings in the universe, would that not be unnatural?
But with us humans, we even carry out this madness methodically. This however needs a larger framework than Postman gives. His mainly recourse is to the age enlightenment – nowadays all those people that lament the decay of occidental culture don’t reach further, such that they are a good example of what they bemoan. Like enlightment itself all the diverse decontextualization processes are no longer transparent to us. Or decontextualization is merely one aspect of it that is hard to value as evil or good. Today we tend to see enlightenment as cutting the cord from religion, as if science in opposition to religious cosmology gained the upper hand. And we neglect the rich metaphorical treasures this cultural area holds.
3. The decontextualized, artificial being – the selfcreation of Man with words
The context I want to give is first biological until I will come to the religious part. If one unfolds the successive evolution of the species there is one aspect that stands out: increase of autonomy. It is not just the greater freedom of movement that animals gained compared to plants, but their greater behavioral independence: through the development of a central nervous system reactions to outer stimuli no longer had to be hardcoded in the genes. A whole new room for learned and improvised behavior emerged. In today’s language we could call this the creation of software powered on the wetware of our biological brains.
We should see mankind in this line. To capture the extreme acceleration that man gave to this development we should turn to the religions of word. They were the ones that distilled the new intangible, behavioral patterns and contents to a canon that could be passed on. In their early testimony we also find images and myths on the origin and character of the emerging mind itself.
Like in the story of the clod of clay into which God breathes the life. We might laugh at this silly metaphor, but the robots we program and that still walk around clumsily bear certain aspects of tha story. In that we put in the rules after which they later on “freely” act. Similarly our will in this image only has deduced nature, but at least it is an attempt to explain how it can come about that a spirit possesses a body giving it directions.
What I want to stress: we commonly view consciousness as this total concentration of somewhat obscure neuronal processes to one central decision maker. No matter how biochemistry produces s this entity it instructs the body. This how nature reached the greatest possible autonomy: as religion created the realm of the spiritual with all its contradictions (for example if you put the spiritual into a different layer of being because of its volatile otherness from the physical you will be forced to such absurd construction as seeing the pineal gland connecting mind and body – or the problem of the ultimate justification of our self, as Kierkegaard posed it with his “Sickness unto Death”: to escape desperation our self cannot but accept to be set from God’s will or breath, just like problems every computer needs to boot(strap) itself to initiate its components.)
But why this lengthy digression?
Well, put in place what media are: carrier of mental contents to fill human consciousness. From the above one can guess that the processing of media contents is something different than tracing a records grooves through the needle. Postman‘s postulate here is that already the form of presentation already influences the processing and quality of the thoughts ensuing. What we here see is actually the opposite: for historical, ideological and religious reasons we value the dosage forms quite differently. It is nothing but the long heritage of the religions formed by word and book that the printed words on paper are still cherished and that the ability is vital to enter the realm of culture. Not only the choice of contents is ideologically motivated, but already that of the medium.
“All those [theories] converge in the fourths, the theory of stupefying,
giving an anthropological statement. If you follow this theory
the media attack not only the critical and differentiating thinking
and the moral and political substance of its users but also their perceptiveness,
even their very psychological identity. Allowing them they
produce a New Man, whom one can imagine as zombie or mutant.
All these theories are weak in the chest.” H.M. Enzensberger
For some time the feature sections have been celebrating the new series as if they already surpassed novels culturally. Long, epic constructions were revived. Is the mere existence of these series already a refutation of Postman‘s theses? In this section I want to review one of these critically acclaimed series: Westworld. As human consciousness is the main theme of this series, it is close to the foregoing remarks.
“Westworld” puts forward the usual non-linear narrative style. Apparent contradictions, mysterious flash-forwards puzzle and thrill the spectator. This combined with nesting and the usual bombastic twists sometimes is close to overstretching the narrative arc. The excessive fireworks calm down however again and the second season follows multiple storylines chronologically in parallel.
The plot is akin to those of Terminator, Matrix or Ex Machina: an artificial intelligence attains consciousness and rebels against mankind. The place for this revolution is the amusement park named “Westworld”. The park is inhabited by androids that have been perfected until being indistinguishable from real humans living in their small repeated stories. The attraction for a guest (real human) visiting the park is that he can freely interact with the so called hosts and explore their stories. As the hosts are programmed to put up with whatever humans do to them and forbidden to do any harm to the guests many visitors plunge into violence and exploitation living out the dark parts of the human soul, such that the spectator is unwillingly drawn to take side with the machines.
In a short review we can only highlight some aspects touched upon. The main theme is certainly to tell the story how through the repeated stories (loops), back stories and interviews the machines gain consciousness. Some serious parts of the theory of mind and the discussion about philosophical zombies is rolled out here. The theme of data mining and big data is then explored through some interesting inversion as it becomes more apparent that the park and hosts merely served to track the guests, so thoroughly that you could extract the essence of Man. Indeed two androids virtually visit the place (the cradle) where all the data of all visitors is stored. Here the authors pay their reverence to dominant medium of millennia: the book, in which we codify our utterances, thoughts and deeds. The humans or their essence is embodied by books in a giant library. The whole sequence however also marks the transition to a whole new age. In another shot a machine arm is engraving a human into the book, but rather as an algorithm. One of the machines after having read most of what the library had to offer only concedes a disappointingly small complexity to human consciousness. It is like an inversion of the famous one-liner that Neo delivered in Matrix when overcoming an agent for the first time: “Only a machine” – analogously the androids now verdict: “Only an algorithm, too.” Admittedly these sequences did not have the completeness and perfection of most of the series, but the metaphorical overtones guide to what should be discussed: Will the electronic data processing units admit deeper understanding of our own or is it already a certain kind of self destruction if in the future we will only be able to see ourselves through the technological lens of computing?
Equally not, those will counter, who can spot the old wine in new skins. How these calculators on steroids change the world? Isn’t this just like the Copernican Revolution: another well-deserved wound into our pride with which we enthroned ourselves in the center of the world.. Like in Buddhism there is this critique of the I and the illusions surrounding it, this can be seen as questioning the holy self-consciousness who now stands there naked as the Emperor in his new clothes. But like the Emperor we could treat that as a realization. Interestingly the androids had some meta-conversations outside their loops, which was also vital part for them to gain consciousness. In these they were always naked, which had an intriguing effect on me: It seemed the engineers let them sit there like that, because they were seen as things, but it had an adverse effect: the “machines” acquired an even greater vulnerability and dignity than their human interviewers. – Would there be something similar possible for human dignity, that through its digital annihilation it resurrects, somehow anew and alien?
I think the analogy with which I struggle is almost this: With the androids and their electronic “brain” an alien strangeness seems to face us. This strangeness produces fear and disgust. Just as in Alien, Terminator and Matrix we are immediately drawn to hate the machines. But that shadows that they are a mirror of ourselves. Like in religion we created this wordspitting monster of God, this infallible, almighty father with whom we only meant ourselves. Now we might not be far from forging not the world but ourselves not out of clay but sand (silicon). Why the fear, why not embrace it? The strangeness and alienness was already with the human ape when he began utter messages signifying things that had no physical counterpart. It is only our training of centuries that overshadows the otherworldniness of all our cultural techniques.
Why is it, we cannot affirm the strangeness positively, like this series accomplished? Why the scribes have to despise the CPU for its determinism as if there couldn’t be a rowhammer or some thermal fluctuation flipping a bit? Just as if enlightenment in the hand of the engineers is always nothing but the enslaved, stupid, instrumental reason. What is the origin of that poetic doubt that accompanies reason from its first days, this fear of humanity vanishing if thought would only be logical calculus?
Foremost history teaches us one thing: If there is something unlimited in the universe, then it is the human’s conviction in their own uniqueness and magnificence. In the debate on philosophic zombies Dennett introduced the notion of a zombic hunch to describe the feeling of superiority we feel towards the hypothetical being which lacks the true inner flame of consciousness (qualia or however you want to call it). In a twist he suggested the construction of zimboes, who would be just like philosophic zombies but augmented with the conviction that they aren’t zombies, but have true qualia. The disturbing question in “Westworld” to which also Dennett is close: are we actually any different from the hypothetical zombies or zimboes. Which uniqueness dare we even claim for the human mind?
Those consideration might have drifted afar. Coming back to the initial question: Do electronic media stupefy? I hope there is now enough material, why those simplifying, suggestive questions are a greater problem than the accused media. They are tempting, because they relieve us from the cumbersome task to check all the contents itself but allow a positive or negative judgment just on part of the chosen medium.
Yes, certain media have structural problems: I intend to shun my son from the usage of smartphones and tablets as long as possible. But is it really the inherent character of these media that they take us down into this swamp of poor diversion or is it not that producer and consumer tend to drift that ways and that can be found in any media? As a law of inertia for the mind that seeks lower, diffused, unfocused states. So it is time to pull ourselves at the bootstrap out of the swamp, be it at a display or bend over paper.