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James McLeod: The internet is changing how our minds work
Books were about ideas. Telegraphs sent information. TVs sent images. The internet sends mobs. And we adapted in response to each.
By: James McLeod
Here’s something that was published 37 years ago, but feels like it could’ve been written today:
“But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. … What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran?”
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is a short book mainly about how television was changing society in the 1980s, but it has a lot to say about how we use communication technology today.
What’s particularly mind-blowing about that passage is that it’s actually reflecting on the invention of the telegraph machine, and how it fundamentally changed people’s conception of the world.
The main thing you should take away from what I’m writing here is that Amusing Ourselves to Death is a really, really insightful book. Read the whole book! It’ll make you think!
But for the sake of a brief summary before I get into my own thoughts, Postman paints a picture of life and thought in the 17th and 18th century, where the printed word was the dominant medium of communication.
Lincoln and Douglas
Postman fixates on the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. The format of the debates is absolutely unimaginable by today’s standards. One man would have a full hour to give his opening statement. Then the second man would have 90 minutes to deliver his rebuttal. Finally, the first candidate would have 30 minutes at the end to tie up any loose ends, for a tidy three hours of debate. Across the seven debates, the two candidates alternated who went first.
Even though it was an oral event, Postman argues that this was the apogee of a culture defined by the written word. When people’s minds are used to thinking in print, they are inclined to engage with abstract concepts, argumentation and complex narratives. Attention span and willingness to delay judgment until you’ve digested the whole idea, with supporting argumentation, is a quality that good readers need.
But as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were deeply debating politics, two technologies had come along that would radically change how people communicate: the telegraph and the photograph.
The impact of the photograph should be pretty obvious. In a media world dominated by the printed word, you have to rely on testimony and argumentation to convince your audience. But with pictures, seeing is believing.
But just as importantly, Postman explains what images cannot do:
[The] vocabulary of images is limited to concrete representation. Unlike words and sentences, the photograph does not present to us an idea or concept about the world, except as we use language itself to convert the image to idea. By itself, a photograph cannot deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract. It does not speak of “man,” only of a man; not of “tree,” only of a tree. You cannot produce a photograph of “nature,” any more than a photograph of “the sea.” You can only photograph a particular fragment of the here-and-now — a cliff of a certain terrain, in a certain condition of light; a wave at a moment in time, from a particular point of view. And just as “nature” and “the sea” cannot be photographed, such larger abstractions as truth, honor, love, falsehood cannot be talked about in the lexicon of pictures.
But I would argue that the telegraph was even more transformational, at least in terms of what it presaged.
With the telegraph, information became brief and decontextualized. Distance and speed became more important than actual usefulness. That’s what Postman was getting at in the long quote I started with.
Before the telegraph, people would read pamphlets and books for information, or they would read novels for entertainment. But all of that was slow, and weighty. The invention of the telegraph is the moment when little bite-sized bits of information started whizzing around the world.
An interesting (useless) little factoid: The crossword puzzle became a popular pastime at almost exactly the same moment when the telegraph machine was invented.
Tracing the lineage of long-distance electronic communication and image-based media, Postman draws his focus on the medium of television. His primary observation is that information and media is no longer there to inform or guide us, but when it comes to TV, it is simply there to amuse us.
And as the dominant form of culture, television starts to influence the way our minds process everything and politics, religion, and education all become passive TV content beamed at us for our entertainment.
The online mobs
Postman’s bigger point is that the dominant media form shapes the entire culture. If you go from a society dominated by the printed word, abstract ideas, written attestations and argumentation, to a world dominated by images and decontextualized kernels of trivial information, it will profoundly change how people engage with the world.
It would be tempting to look at our online environment today and simply see it as the mangled wreckage of the car crash that Postman was documenting. TikTok is like TV on amphetamines, and Twitter is to the telegraph as an M16 is to a musket.
But in reading Amusing Ourselves to Death I found myself thinking that the online experience is something entirely new.
If the predominant form of the printed word is the abstract ideas and arguments, and the predominant form of TV is images and trivia, then I think the predominant form of the internet is mobs, and the idea of an environment driven by metrics.
What makes the internet different from TV is that it is a two-way form of communication. We don’t just receive content; we interact with it. And everywhere online, we are bombarded with the signals of all those aggregated interactions.
Under every social media post and YouTube video, there are metrics — likes, comments, subscribers, views, etc. And in more indirect ways, too, we move in mobs. Memes, aesthetics, fandoms, trending topics and five-star product ratings, are all signals that show us the crowd dynamics online.
Some of it is down to design choices by tech companies, and some of it is maybe just the fundamental nature of a global communication network. When we can connect and communicate online, we will inevitably clump together into groups. And the resulting mobs aren’t passive; they grow, adapt, clash, and fracture internally.
In the big picture, the mobs give us things like cancel culture, the freedom convoy, panic over disinformation, panic over “woke,” Qanon and the Snyder Cut.
When Postman says that the news is delivered as inert information, the chronically online denizen replies by saying “If you make me angry, I’ll post about you on Twitter and you’ll be trending by lunchtime.”
And this psychology of the mob also steers us in myriad smaller ways too. If you’ve spent enough time in and around mobs, you start being hyper-aware of being confronted by one.
Have you ever had a conversation with somebody who complained that they posted something online and got “bombarded” with negative replies? And then when you looked into it, their Instagram post only got eight comments, and only three of them were mildly critical? When the dominant psychology of online existence is that of the mob, even a few negative comments can feel like being overrun.
As individuals, we don’t always run with the mobs, but we are always defining ourselves by where we stand in relation to the mob — observing, opposing, participating, or even attempting to lead.
Is it any mystery why our politics feels like it’s all propelled by an unruly crowd? Is it just a coincidence that identity markers like race, sexual orientation, gender, education and geography are the primary lines of demarcation in our society? Is it crazy to suggest that the reason why so many institutions are crumbling is because journalism, the justice system, the academy, and regulatory tribunals are not well-equipped to engage with mobs? Is it too much to imagine that when we’re bombarded by online campaigns — organic and manufactured — people are primed to see their political opponents as a terrifying soulless horde, instead of just fellow citizens who disagree about matters of politics?
A last word for Mr. Postman
I’m sure all of this will sound like harrumphing and hand-wringing to some readers, and that’s fair enough. I suspect that when Postman published his book in 1985, it came across as a bookish professor harrumphing about how television was rotting people’s minds.
But the fact of the matter is, the written word is different from the TV, and the online landscape is even more radically different. If you think I’ve got the wrong diagnosis, that’s fine.
But at the very least, let’s take it as a given that our online lives are neither passive nor indifferent. I’ll give Postman the final word, because he said it better back in 1985, four years before the World Wide Web was even invented:
To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.
Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress.
James McLeod is a Toronto-based writer and communications professional. From 2018 to 2020 he covered Canadian tech for the Financial Post.
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