Neil Postman was right.
The world of the future – Postman wrote in 1985 – is not the dystopian, totalitarian, big-brother censored world of Orwell and his Room 101. (1984 – 1949)
No. It’s actually something a lot worse. It has actually turned out to be much more akin to the mind-controlled through narcotics, entertainment-above-all, “preoccupied with the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy” world of Huxley. (A Brave New World – 1932) A world in which “what we love will ruin us.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 18 – All page numbers are from Kindle)
Postman wrote in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that the biggest problem facing American (and Canadian) culture is the overabundance of visual information. (He was thinking of television primarily.). Following the great Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, Postman believed that what we talk about in public, the information that passes among us and between us, is profoundly shaped by the medium through which it is disseminated. Or as one commentator has put it, “The character and quality of the medium ends up shaping and constraining the character and quality of discussion.”
What is lost in this is truth.
Postman wrote, “definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed.” (33) He goes on to say that when you change the medium you also change “the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and demanding a certain kind of content.” Change the medium and you are in danger of changing the truth, is what Postman is saying.
Take the difference between interacting with the written word and a television commercial or video and its implications for truth. Postman writes about the former,
Whenever language is the principal medium of communication — especially language controlled by the rigors of print — an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. (140)
Now listen to him speak about the commercial on television,
The commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy. Indeed, it puts forward a psychological theory of unique axioms: the commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, [and] that they are solvable fast. (140-141)
The difference between the two mediums is massive. Thought processes are shorter and shallower in the visual. What is being sought from the medium is different. The means of evaluating the claims of the visual are different. The effects of the message on the individual are different. In the end, the thing that has changed the most is that truth and its sometimes pain-staking discovery is no longer important in the visual age. Speed, entertainment, and ease are the things that are important. Truth is irrelevant.
But we have an additional problem that Postman could not have predicted. Let me quote him again, from just before the above quote on commercials.
Because the television commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of television commercials. By “accommodate,” I mean that we would accept them as a normal and plausible form of discourse. By “philosophy,” I mean that the television commercial has embedded in it certain assumptions about the nature of communication that run counter to those of other media, especially the printed word.
It is the last sentence that is most evident and most concerning in its negative impact on our society. The sheer volume of visual stimulation that we are inundated with each and every day due to our almost universal ability to access the internet is unbelievable. We simply don’t read anymore. We watch videos on YouTube or Facebook, and usually only if they are less than 5 minutes long. Or we watch even smaller snippets on Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok. Even our written word has been shortened thanks to Twitter and texting. So not only are we primarily a visual culture – picture and video – but we are a culture with ever-shortening attention spans because of it.
Remember. What gets lost in this move of medium is the truth. It does so in three ways. First, we are inundated with so much information from so many places that it is pretty much impossible to sift through all of it. Second, we are waterboarded with information so fast that we cannot make sense of something we have just seen before we are forced to move to the next image. Third, the truth takes time to discover and is hard to grasp. Put these realities in a twitchy culture that is constantly moving on to the next thing and it is virtually impossible for us to determine the truth from the innumerable lies we see every day.
Postman bemoaned this particular reality in 1985, “Among those lessons [of the TV commercial] are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems.” (142) (In this way, Huxley got it very right! We are indeed a culture which has an “almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Postman, 18)
Postman stated in the introduction to his work that, “media are implicated in our epistemologies.” In other words, a visual culture will think about and talk about different things and in different ways than a culture of print. They will come to different conclusions and care about different things than a print-based culture. This means that their values and ‘truth’ will be different also. I’m not suggesting that we all stop watching entirely and start reading exclusively. Although this would make a fantastic difference in our lives. I am advocating that one way to curb the negative effects of our culture on our ability to discover and grasp the truth is to turn off our devices. I do agree with Postman when he writes, “I believe the epistemology created by television (YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc.) not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.” (43)
The problem is that the visual culture in which we live has almost destroyed propositional truth. Postman writes that people don’t “argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.” (105) We don’t think about truth the same way as we once did. Truth isn’t something that many care to undertake to find. It has become less important as a shaper of our lives. It has become something I make for myself as I move along rather than a goal to be reached. It has become something that I can change based on my situation rather than something that is universal. It is something that can be different for everyone, rather than true for all everywhere and at all times. It has become malleable rather than rigid. It has, if we are honest, become irrelevant to the way we live our lives. The evidence of these things is on display all around us.
Truth, however, is massively important for all of us but for the Christian especially. Jesus is the truth. God does nothing but speak the truth. God hates a lying tongue. The Holy Spirit is truth. And on and on I could go. This is why I am undertaking this blog series. To reclaim the importance of truth in a world of distractions and lies. As Jesus said – it is the truth that will set all people free. Without the truth, there is no hope. We must find it, hold to it and preach it.
I hope to deal with the following topics over the next number of weeks – Why is truth important? What is truth? What are the characteristics of truth? Where do we find truth? How do we decipher truth from lies? Is the Bible true? How do we deal with competing claims to truth? – and many more.
Soli Deo Gloria
If you have any particular issues or questions you would like to address on this topic, send me an email. I won’t guarantee that your topic will make it into a blog, but I will guarantee a response. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.