Pandmic VI: Damn You Neil Postman

Published: 2020-11-04
Tagged: thoughts pandemic

After the last post in this series, I picked up Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death." It's about how humanity is creating a future much like the one in Huxley's "Brave New World," a future of meaningless joys and boundless distractions. The force propelling us down this road, the focus of Postman's critique, is television. The way it works is that that television compacts meaning into moving images, a process that cuts away much details and nauance, and makes it impossible to think or communicate about difficult issues.

Postman died in 2003. That was a year before Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook. Between his death and today, the number of social media users increased from 0 to 3.8 billion, that's roughly 48% of the world's population. These numbers tell us that social media has become an important part of our everyday lives. What would Postman say about social media if he were alive today?

When Postman criticized television, he focused on the idea that information's value can be measured by the potential to act on it. He called it the "information-action ratio" and asserted that it was terrible for television programs. Police car chases, reality TV shows, and an infinite supply of politicians saying stupid things may convey many facts, but there's not much anyone can do based on them. With this in mind, I think Postman would consider social media as a much worse danger than television.

Look at how we're tackling a global pandemic. Armed with the greatest information distribution machine in history, our response is confused and disorganized. The 24/7 news cycle blasts information at us that we can't use: a scientist somewhere said something, a government agency recommended something else, some country did a thing and something happened, etc. If we looked on earth from space, we would see continents, countries, governments, cities, neighborhoods, and families all thrashing about, unsure about the right thing to do.

The primary driver of this is social media, which, at its core, is a collection of algorithms that "optimize user engagement." That's a nice way of saying that they're built to grab as much of a user's attention as possible. They do this by shaping what each user sees and reads into a form that triggers the most emotions, which is the basis of all entertainment. Just like with TV, social media users passively consume whatever facts the algorithm serves up, facts that are meaningless in the context of their lives.

Ever notice how every online service today, from music/video streaming, to shopping and news has a "play next", "related posts", or similar feature? It's just like, back in the day, a TV show would end and an announcer's booming voice would exclaim "stay tuned, coming up next..." We've come full circle.


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