Dilbert on Amusing Ourselves to Death

Dilbert amusing


Like all good humour, the strip is a minor exaggeration of reality.




The strip serves as a segue from my concerns about the continuing relevance of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, to my next entry, which will look at Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.

As we move more deeply into the connected world, we have no choice but to surrender personal data. As we surrender data, market managers are able to tailor-make a world of consumption for us–whether we want it or not. The upshot is that the world of big data is relentlessly conservative–it makes a model of “you as you are” and works to market at you from that position only. The poor are set up for predatory loans and exploitative “opportunities”, while the affluent are guided toward status-enhancement.

Tighten your seatbelts; things are looking bleak.




A brief entry today. A number of my recent postings have been about brevity (whether anyone has noticed, I’m not sure.) The point I’m trying to make is that understanding is hard work. We can’t just watch a 4 minute video, or visit a few websites, or scan a news item and actually know very much about anything. This is a longstanding educational problem. I’ve pointed out Neil Postman’s arguments about TV culture, and I’ve suggested that internet “knowledge and understanding” are another species of the same problem. I will continue to provide bits and provocations, and will attempt to write  a longer, more coherent position some time in the near future.

The Doonesbury cartoon points to a longstanding problem. People think they can say something about world affairs, while simultaneously knowing very little about the world. The geography of Syria or Crimea are deeply relevant to understanding the ongoing conflicts in those lands. So are their histories, political economies, language, and culture.

Who among us knows enough to keep our politicians honest on these issues?

We can include anything and everything in mandatory education. But surely a deeper knowledge of the physical shape of the earth, and the main political divisions would greatly help to inform political dialogue.

Here’s a question for you. How many current heads of government can you name? (I mean presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, etc. not mayors and governors.) Have you got 20? 10? 5 at least?

While we’re at it, see if you can find Syria and Crimea on an unmarked map.





Postman: “Teaching as an Amusing Activity”

As I noted previously, Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business seems oddly appropriate in the connected world of the early 21st century.
Chapter 10 of this book, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity” looks at the role of television in shaping 1980s educational thinking and practice. My goal today is to briefly review what Postman had to say, and think about today’s connected classrooms in light of this.
As I wrote in my previous discussion of Postman, TV and prose have very different structures, giving them very different relationships to knowledge. (Postman says that different media have different epistemologies; this, I think, goes too far.) Postman begins with a discussion of “Sesame Street”, then reflects back to the classroom.

As for educators, they generally approved of “Sesame Street,” too. Contrary to common opinion, they are apt to find new methods congenial, especially if they are told that education can be accomplished more efficiently by means of the new techniques. (That is why such ideas as “teacher-proof” textbooks, standardized tests, and, now, micro-computers have been welcomed into the classroom.) “Sesame Street” appeared to be an imaginative aid in solving the growing problem of teaching Americans how to read, while, at the same time, encouraging children to love school.
We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set [is not.] (p. 143)

There are two big ideas here. First, we have the displacement of responsibility from human teachers to an entertainment medium. Second, we have the displacement of a social setting—the classroom—to a private setting—in front of a screen. 30+ years later, the issues have not changed.
After some reflection, Postman continues:

This does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational. It is, in fact, nothing but educational—in the sense that every television show is educational. Just as reading a book—any kind of book —promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same. “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Cheers” and “The Tonight Show” are as effective as “Sesame Street” in promoting what might be called the television style of learning. And this style of learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book-learning or its handmaiden, school-learning. (p. 144)

Now we’re getting to the main issue: by changing the media of education, we change not only the content of education; we also change our notions of what is educationally valuable. Whatever it is that students get out of television learning, we have to be prepared to understand that it is different from what they get out of reading, writing and socially interacting. Watching the movie is not the same as reading the book. Not only do we need to understand it, we need to be prepared to challenge our values. What is important in education?
In the connected world, we often hear bland generalizations about the modern “knowledge economy” and “21st century skills” and “21st century literacies” and so on. But are we really aware of the price we are paying? Postman lays it out with what he calls the three commandments of television-based education.

Thou shalt have no prerequisites
Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
Thou shalt induce no perplexity
In television teaching, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt
Of all the enemies of television-teaching, including continuity and perplexity, none is more formidable than exposition. Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television-teaching always takes the form of story-telling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music. This is as characteristic of “Star Trek” as it is of “Cosmos,” of “Diff’rent Strokes” as of “Sesame Street,” of commercials as of “Nova.” Nothing will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.

Whew! This is strong stuff. I can’t help but agree. And, again, the issues have not changed. Indeed, many educators have taken these three commandments to heart, merely by being part of the 21st century.

I hope to return to this later.

Back to the 80s #4: Amusing ourselves to Death

No. I’m not done with the 80s yet. Turns out that many of the issues that bedevil us today w71ew4kattblere on the agenda 30 years ago
I recently reread Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. There is an important chapter dealing with education, but I’ll put that aside for today and focus on the introduction to the book, which has become a deep insight into our currently connected world.

Postman famously reflected on two important works of political science fiction from the early part of the 20th Century: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (and a tip of the hat to Brave New World Revisited).
Briefly, 1984 describes a totalitarian world in which people are controlled through censorship, surveillance and the systematic destruction of language. Ultimately, a people without the means for self-expression are incapable of creation and are doomed to servitude. Brave New World offers a contrasting picture of the future, in which those with the cognitive capacity for freedom are constantly deflected from its exercise, through drugs, sex, virtual reality and comfort.
Both books agree that freedom is threatened by the destruction of language and the motivation to apply it meaningfully; but each gives a radically different mechanism by which this might be accomplished. Postman’s great insight was precisely this point.

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This is chillingly appropriate for the connected world. We are offered websites, apps, music, video, games and more for the simple price of our privacy. And we are throwing ourselves with zeal into every imaginable distraction. Who hasn’t noted the trend of people walking down the street with their faces buried in their phones? What teacher has not noticed that students are drawn to the siren call of social media: even with the phone out of sight, there is the constant thought of “what am I missing?” Drivers are apparently unwilling to pocket their phones while on the road, preferring the risk of smashing a ton of steel into a stranger to the risk of missing out on snapchat.
But are we being controlled by all this? Postman thought so. (To be clear: he was speaking of television culture in the 1980s, but the phenomenon is similar. In fact, I believe that the phenomenon is the same, but is considerably amplified by the ubiquity of social media.) We’ve heard the talk about post-truth, and the connected world is the main driver behind our increased reliance upon quick decisions. Headlines matter more than articles, because we are not willing to put aside our distractions long enough to read.

post truth graph
Marvelous graph from social media. I don’t know who to credit. If you do, please let me know and I will do so.

I don’t believe that people don’t want to know the truth, or the details, or the arguments. It’s just that the pull of our amusements is stronger than our desire to know.
Postman would likely be pleased to see that his book and its arguments still apply more than 30 years after the book was first published. And he’d likely be horrified too.

Only for geniuses, eh?

As regularly as the spring rain, memes of the following sort show up on social media.

As a math teacher, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Adults—sometimes hundreds or thousands of them—argue about the correct answer to this “problem” and others like it.
Let’s be clear: this is a question about the order of operations in arithmetic. In the Province of Alberta (my home) this is expected of all Grade 6 math students. So, Facebook is clogged with adults working below 6th grade in basic number sense. Ok I do know. It’s cry, not laugh.
What sense can we make of this? Do adults not remember their elementary-school arithmetic? Apparently many do not. But some of the comments are also telling. It appears that many were taught methods that almost work, but don’t quite.
The acronyms BEDMAS or BODMAS are often taught to children.

Exponents (or pOwers)

If you follow BEDMAS, you’ll be right most of the time. It’s fine for the above problem. There are no brackets or exponents, so you divide 7/7 and multiply 7×7, turning the problem into 7+1+49-7=50. But there is a problem with BEDMAS/BODMAS and that is that the acronym suggests that division has priority over multiplication and that addition has priority over subtraction. This is not true.
Once brackets and exponents are cared for, you work left to right. If you come to a multiplication or division, do that before continuing with the addition or subtraction. Schematically, the problem above simply becomes 7+(7/7)+(7×7)-7, which is pretty easy mental arithmetic.
Even calculators can make errors.


If you’re not working left to right, you run the risk of making the error on the left.
Regardless, what am I on about here?
First, order of operations is elementary school arithmetic. It should not pose a problem for adults. But it does. This points to a serious educational deficiency—for the adults. This is not a problem of “new math” or “constructivism” or “Common Core”. The people getting it wrong online are, by and large, from earlier generations of failed arithmetic education.
But it’s clearly a problem, and I think I know why. It’s a problem of assessment. You see, if students (in any generation) get most of the questions right, they get a good grade. I suspect that the adults who can’t solve simple order of operations problems never could do it well. But they got all the easier questions right, so no one bothered to dig deeply into their failure on the one or two harder items on the test. Yes, this is just speculation on my part, but I’m willing to bet that it explains a good deal of the problem.
But there is a positive note to all this. Adults are arguing about math in their spare time.

They care. And that’s encouraging.

Back to the 80s #3: Manufacturing Consent

Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is one of the most influential scholarly works of the 1980s. Certainly in the English language, it created enormous waves in every aspect of social science, and popular culture.

manufacturing-consent-the-political-economy-of-the-mass-media-0-300x300In brief, Herman and Chomsky create a “propaganda model” to explain coverage of certain issues in the largest American news media.

The case has two parts. Herman and Chomsky analyze “natural experiments” in the news world to see if American media give differential treatment to what appear to be politically and morally similar events. When they see that the treatment is, indeed, differential, they then apply their media model to explain the difference.

Two of the “natural experiments” or case studies stand out. In the decade or so preceding the publication of Manufacturing Consent, three Central American countries suffered from civil war, military rule, and American intervention. All three held elections that were scrutinized by external observers. Two of the states—El Salvador and Guatemala—enjoyed the support of the American government; the third—Nicaragua—did not. All three situations got extensive treatment, but Herman and Chomsky provide abundant evidence that they were not treated equally. The press was continually sympathetic to El Salvador and Guatemala, and continually antagonistic toward Nicaragua. There were other significant differences, and these were examined in the propaganda model.

quote-the-propaganda-system-allows-the-u-s-ieadership-to-commit-crimes-without-limit-and-with-edward-s-herman-77-16-03The second main case study involved the press’s treatment of the Indochina war (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) from the 1950s to the 1970s. Throughout the war, according to Herman and Chomsky, the press continually misrepresented the nature of local support, the nature of US involvement, the consequences of US attacks on civilians, and the suppression of popular vote in order to protect US-friendly candidates, regardless of their local standing. (The natural comparison to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor is mentioned, but not deeply explored in this book. Much was made of this in years to follow.)

I will not delve deeply into the book here, as I wish to take the main conclusions and play them forward into 2017, but I will at least outline the propaganda model.

Herman and Chomsky’s key idea is that a free press, operating in a market economy within a militarily powerful nations is subject to pressures that act as filters to the news. The model identifies five filters:

  1. Ownership
  2. Advertising
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak, and
  5. Anti-Communism.

As mentioned previously, the model was presented in 1988, when anti-communism was a more powerful filter than it is today. That said, Herman and Chomsky, in a 2008 interview, note that it has been replaced with other convenient patriotic neuroses.

…The Propaganda Model’s ‘five filters’ requires some clarification. (a) Ownership and (b) advertising belong to straightforward institutional analysis – these are the kinds of institutional arrangements that predominate among US media firms and elsewhere. (c) Sourcing and (d) flak are two well-established processes to which any elite-serving media will adapt, whether we are talking about the elite US or British media or the elite media under Stalin and Hitler. On the other hand, (e) anti-communism, as a major theme of media production during the twentieth century, was reflective of the prevailing system of belief in the Western states, and has evolved with the collapse of the Soviet bloc since the first edition of Manufacturing Consent. In a crucial sense, and extending from the most minor comic books and cartoons all the way up to the highest academic discussions of the so-called Cold War (i.e. the system of propaganda known as the ‘Cold War’), anti-communism was a staple that provided content, narratives, heroes and villains. Since 1989, this staple has morphed into an array of substitutes. But the structural role that anti-communism and its successors have played, namely, the provision of an Enemy or the Face of Evil, remains as relevant as ever.


When asked how the model might be revised for the current situation, Herman and Chomsky replied:

It would look very much like the 1988 version, with the ‘free market’ as a principal ideological underpinning along with ‘anti-terrorism’ and the ‘war on terror’ that have provided the needed Enemy or Face of Evil, with anticommunism pushed into a back-up and reminder/ideological role.

So let’s move forward to 2017, and the current obsession with biased media, fake news and post-truth.

Let’s start with the obvious question: does the media have a left- or right- bias? And here we see precisely where the Herman and Chomsky model is almost speaking a different language from the popular discourse. Left and right are defined in popular discourse strictly in terms of local politics. In the USA, the Democrats are the left and the Republicans are the right. That might seem obvious to Americans, but to the rest of the world this is crazy: The Democrats are right and the Republicans are righter, by almost any standard. The discourse of “business first” and profitability for home-grown corporations are front and centre of political discourse—both in American and in much of the world. Since the heady Reagan-Thatcher days of the 80s, hardly anyone bothers to question this point of view. Certainly the mainstream media does not question this. The media is conservative in the same way that the mainstream political parties (at least in the USA) are conservative: they take for granted that the role of government is to ensure that existing power and economic structures be conserved.

The question of left/right bias in American media in 2017 is a thinly disguised question of favourable reviews of particular parties or candidates, not of left or right. Anecdotally, during the recent US Presidential election, the mainstream media certainly appeared to take more shots at Trump than Clinton, but at the same time, it gave Trump considerably more airtime. It’s hard to say which was more valuable to the parties and candidates.

But on a deeper level, this puts the whole fake news/post-truth debate in a different space than we have been seeing. Yes, there are propaganda sites out there, and yes, some media outlets show brand loyalty to political parties. This is also interesting, but not particularly deep or troubling. What is deep and troubling is the media’s bias towards certain views of the world. And this, if we can trust Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, is not new.

So let’s stop for a moment and catch our collective breath. Everybody thinks we should teach “media literacy” to our students so that they can navigate the wild world of fact/propaganda/lies/post-truth/alternative facts/doublethink, etc. etc. I’m ok with that, but let’s not rush into this. We have an enormous problem, made even more enormous by

  1. Our tacit acceptance of “the world as it is”, and
  2. The abyss we call the internet. As curated libraries shrink and are superseded by the uncurated online world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish mainstream media (with Herman and Chomsky’s reservations) from sincere and competent alternative media, from sincere and less competent alternative media, from partisan lies.

Let me close without resolution. Media literacy—whatever it turns out to be—will have to be a broad and deep endeavor for it to make any real difference for our students.