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Technology and Education (3) – The Rise of the Instantgram Mind

The typographical mind, grounded in words and ideas, is worlds apart from what I will refer to as the Instantgram mind, a mind formed by images. To understand the distance between the two, consider the following. Postman asserted that until relatively recently, public figures were known largely by their written words and not by their images. It is quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen in the street. To think about those men was to think about what they had written; they were judged by their public positions, their arguments, their knowledge as codified in the printed word. Postman says that we can get some sense of how far we are separated from this kind of consciousness by thinking about any of our recent presidents or other public figures. Consider Barak Obama. What comes to mind? Or Richard Nixon? Or Billy Graham? Or Bill Gates? For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind is an image, specifically a picture of a face. Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centric culture and thinking in an image-centric culture.

According to Postman, the shift from a typographical to an Instantgram mind began with the invention of the telegraph. Until the telegraph’s invention in the mid-nineteenth century, information could only travel at about thirty-five miles per hour. The telegraph changed this, making information transformation virtually instantaneous. This is not bad in itself and indeed this has many good uses (consider, for example, how difficult it was to conduct diplomatic missions across oceans when ships and the letters they carried could languish for months or bypass one another).

And yet this new technology had an unexpected consequence. People love novelty, so when a new technology arises it is easy to think that because it can be used it ought to be used. According to Postman, with the invention of the telegraph we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply. Henry David Thoreau said the following about the telegraph, “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 the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Indeed, the telegraph led to a flood of irrelevant and trivial information that in turn made public discourse essentially incoherent. Moreover, it created the idea of context free information. Information no longer needed to be tied to any function it might serve in political or social decision making, rather the information it relayed was attached merely to its novelty or curiosity. This was no conspiracy or intentional act, but rather the natural outcome of the technology. For the telegraph was designed to move information quickly, not collect, explain, or analyze it. In this way its function was completely antithetical of that of a book’s.

The photograph turned out to be the perfect complement to the telegraph. The telegraph had filled the world with news from nowhere and filled the lives of citizens with facts from unknown places. The photograph seemed to provide a bridge—the information about strangers with unknown faces could be connected to readers by means of illustrations. This created an apparent context for the news of the day and the illusion that something useful or necessary had been learned.

And yet, according to Postman, no real learning has taken place. Postman gave the following example. Imagine that I inform you that the illyx is a sub species of vermiform plant with articulated leaves that flowers biannually on the island of Aldononjes. In response, you wonder aloud, “what does that have to do with anything?” I respond by handing you a photograph of it and say “look”. Now it is true that the photograph provides a context for the sentence you have been given, and that the sentence provides a context of sorts for the photograph. Taken together this may even lead you to believe for a day or so that you’ve learned something. But if the event is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter with the illyx of Aldononjes, then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so was the impression of meaning attached to it. You will have in fact learned nothing and are at best left with an amusing bit of trivia, good for trading in cocktail party chatter or solving a crossword puzzle, but nothing more.

Consider for a moment: how often does it occur that information provided to you on some morning radio or television program or on one of your “feeds” causes you to alter your plans for the day, take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem? Much of our daily news gives us something to talk about but it cannot and does not lead to any meaningful action. This is the result of living in an image-based world. We scroll through photos or videos or memes or tweets, each disconnected, each without context or nuance, each one wiping out the relevance of what preceded it. Or we watch a television program, a self-contained thirty- or sixty-minute world, interrupted every seven minutes with commercials for phones, luxury cars, pharmaceuticals, or dish-detergent. This not undermines memory and the development of concentration, but it discourages focused and linear thoughts. Indeed, there is no time to think and even if there is, what is thought about is only superseded by the next meme, the next video, the next television program. It is true that we might “learn” something and that by reading through our daily news feed or watching a nightly news program we might be “informed”, but what it means to “learn” or to be “informed” in this Instantgram world is fundamentally different than what it meant in a typographical world. The reason for this is that the form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be, of which I write more in two weeks.