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Technology and Education (4) – All Discourse Becomes Entertainment in an Instantgram World

Two weeks ago I ended my message by stating that that the form in which ideas are expressed affects the content of those ideas. I think we can take this further and assert that the forms of discourse regulate, and even dictate, what kind of content can issue from such forms.

For example, it is perfectly natural for a person to receive a letter and pause and reflect on that letter before responding—you can easily imagine a potential letter writer sitting at a desk with pen in hand pondering his response. But that scene is unthinkable on television. While writing allows for and even encourages slow, discursive, and deliberate thought, there is no place for this on television. You cannot imagine someone on television saying “I don’t know, let me think about that for a few minutes” and then proceeding to consider a question while filling the airwaves with silence. Television requires a certain type of form, namely that things be entertaining.

As Postman asserted, the problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter on television must be presented as entertainment.

Consider how screens have changed debates. While Lincoln and Douglass had hours to develop their positions, modern presidential candidates have mere minutes. There is not enough room to develop long and nuanced positions in televised debates, so the “winner” of the debate is often the person that projects the most “presidential” image.

Postman also discussed advertisements. A capitalistic economy assumes that both producers and consumers are rational actors. This assumption led advertisers to clearly, rationally, and often minutely explain the value of their product to potential consumers. This is not true of modern advertisements that have reached their apex in television commercials. Commercials are something fundamentally different from the advertisements that one would have seen during the typographical age. Instead of factual propositions, they are full of mythology, full of drama. Handsome people buy and sell hamburgers. No claims are made; rather images of joy, contentment, success, etc. are projected. This in turn allows the viewer to project his or her own hopes, dreams, or fears into the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial. But unlike earlier propositional adds, one cannot refute a television commercial. Image based advertising has oriented businesses away from making valuable products to making consumers feel valuable. Full of images of movie stars and athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of a happy family packing the station wagon for a picnic in the country, the television commercial tells nothing about the product being sold. Instead, it tells everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who watch commercials. Ultimately the commercial, in its use of images, makes emotional appeal the basis of consumer decisions. And the commercial is ubiquitous—by the time he or she reaches the age of forty the average American has seen over one-million commercials. As a result it is not bad products which lose, but those with bad projections.

The move from thoughtful, rational, propositional, and falsifiable advertising was not intentional or some form of conspiracy. Rather television (and other screen-based forms of communication), in making the image central, required that advertisements be entertaining and connect emotionally with potential consumers. There simply is not space on television for discursive, propositional advertising—the format does not allow for it. Television requires that advertisements be entertaining or fail.

What is true of advertisements is also true of even “serious” television programming. Think about any nightly news or cable news program (having never watched one, I am less familiar with internet-based news shows, but I assume the same is true with them). First off, each show is staffed by attractive looking people and each show has a musical theme. Next, each story is dramatically shared, full of pathos-laden scenes that are quickly cut, one right after another. Finally, each program is interspersed with commercials! Even the most serious and heart-breaking news stories are interrupted by an irrelevant commercial for Burger King or car insurance. As a result, the news is fragmented, without context, without consequences, and therefore without any real seriousness. But it is entertaining! Novel (and often salacious) stories dramatically told by handsome individuals interspersed with moving images book ended with engaging music, never spending too much time on background or burdening us with loads of facts and details, but always moving on to something new *just* as our attention begins to wane—this is compelling!

All of this, taken together, provides an illusion of knowledge. Most Americans have an opinion on the Iraq war or the war in Afghanistan. But what percentage of Americans know what language is spoken in Iraq or Afghanistan? Or the origin of the Taliban? Or the religious divisions among Muslims in Iraq? Or the main outlines of Afghanistan’s political history? Nevertheless, we all have opinions. But for many of us it is probably more accurate to call them emotions, which accounts for how fast they change. In short, screen-based communications, because they are image-centric, have altered the meaning of “being informed”. Again, I do not believe this is intentional, it is the simple consequence of news being packaged as entertainment, as screens require. According to Postman, this has led us to lose our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?