Dilbert on Amusing Ourselves to Death

Dilbert amusing
http://dilbert.com/strip/2017-04-30

 

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

 

Weapons

 

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.

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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.

Back to the 80’s # 1: 1984

Back in 1983-1984 everybody and his dog read or reread George Orwell’s 1984 and made a pronouncement of some sort.

cache_27680941No, we didn’t tweet it or post about it on on Facebook. No one could have imagined such inanities back in the 80s. But we were aware of Orwell’s dystopian vision and we were aware that the anointed year had come. So we spoke.

And spoke.

And wrote.

And spoke.

The general consensus was that Orwell had missed the mark. Sure, we said, the Soviet Union and China were awful dictatorships, but we in the lovely west were seeing nothing of the horrors of Orwell’s vision.

That is to say, we missed the point of the book.

our_northrop_frye2Orwell’s central thesis, neatly summarized by Northrop Frye (I intend a Frye “Back to the 80s” soon), “is that there is only one way to create a hell on earth that we and our children can never escape from, and that is to smash language.”[i]

To smash language. To remove the possibility of articulating non-trivial thought.

 

Twitter.

Facebook.

Instagram.

067466020xAs the philosopher Charles Taylor tirelessly argues, language has both a constitutive as well as a designative function. Language designates insofar as it provides expression to thoughts, and provides a vehicle for interpreting others’ thoughts. But language does much more than this. Language not only allows us to name our world; it also is integral to the creation of much of it as well. By naming the world, we come to understand it on our terms, and we create possibilities of understanding and application that could not be present otherwise.[ii] To live in language is to live in a world of meaningful creation and participation. Without language, we would be much less than we are now.

If, as Orwell feared, language were to be destroyed, then the possibility of meaningful human creation would die with it.

Our world looks nothing like Orwell’s dictatorial dystopia; aren’t we safe?

I don’t think so. Twitter—the medium of choice for the US President-elect—restricts communication to 140 characters. This has had a fascinating effect on communication. First, a number of tweeters have revived the long-dead art of the epigram. It is possible to be insightful and hilarious in 140 characters. George Takei is a master of the art. But neither can you provide a detailed or nuanced argument. Twitter is a way of telling people what they already believe. If you have Twitter talent, it’s a fun and entertaining way of helping people to laugh at their own cleverness. Try tweeting an explanation of what’s at stake in the Trans Pacific Partnership.

But it’s not just tweets. It’s memes on Facebook and Instagram. Wonderfully entertaining, both, but utterly incapable of sustained argument or novel conception.

Perhaps I’m being a bit hasty here. Sure we have social media for exchanging our daily trivialities, but that doesn’t mean that all written communication is or will be trivialized. This is where there is hope.

Education is the place where language has a chance to make a stand.

71ew4kattblIf education fully embraces the “new technologies” and “21st century literacy” then the future is bleak. As Neil Postman (another likely topic for my “Back to the 80s” kick) argued, continuous prose is one of the greatest technologies created by humans for the purpose of making and communicating meaning. Nothing compares to the ability of prose to structure arguments, to demonstrate cause and effect, to offer thought experiments. But prose is not simple. It takes a lifetime to master clear, lucid prose. We have to decide if we, as a society, are up to the task. Do we care to give the gift of prose to future generations?

(As an aside, imaginative prose is one of our great cultural legacies. It is being displaced by video. This is a whole different discussion for another day.)

There is much more to say, and I will return to this topic.

Let me close with my favourite epigram–a pre-Twitter tweet–from an earlier time. In the 18th century, epigrammatic wit was highly valued (as were extended prose and poetical treatment of serious issues). Alexander Pope gave a dog to Frederick, the Prince of Wales in 1736. The dog had a collar, engraved with the following couplet.

I AM his Highness’ dog at Kew; 
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?


[i] Northrop Frye (1988) “The Authority of Learning.” A talk given to the Empire Club in Toronto on 19 January, 1984.

[ii] Charles Taylor (2016) The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.